With the state of the world a few years ago, online communication tools like Zoom, Google Meet, and Skype have suddenly become irreplaceable to people across all countries. Face-to-face communication has suddenly shifted to meeting and talking to people behind a screen for health and safety reasons.
Eventually, the world gradually returned to its pre-pandemic state, but even then, some of the company practices in that era lingered, such as online meetings and discussions. But in business cultures when multilingualism is the norm, this brings up a somewhat familiar challenge in a new form: how to interpret multiple languages on an online platform.
Zoom is one such tool that has tried to solve this issue. A leading video conferencing platform, it already has some features that add language accessibility for users:
Automatic Transcription: This feature helps transcribe meetings in real-time in specific languages. There are limitations to its accuracy, however, such as background noise, volume and clarity of the speaker’s voice, and vocabulary and dialects specific to a location or community.
Manual Captions/Subtitles: Users can add subtitles and captions for webinars and conferences, allowing participants to more easily follow topics and conversations.
Zoom Translation: Apart from real-time transcription, Zoom also supports caption translations to different languages, though the number of available languages is much smaller.
Screen Reader: For users who are hard of seeing, this feature lets people hear custom announcements like the host muting their audio, or if you’ve received a chat message.
And yet, for all these features, it doesn’t quite capture the needs of multilingual users, who might require better methods of communication to understand events as they unfold.
In response, Zoom has set up a new feature called Language Interpretation. This allows the host to assign up to 20 participants as interpreters on the web portal or during a Zoom session.
When enabled, this allows the interpreters to provide their audio channels for the language they are translating to. Attendees can then select the audio they want to hear, and they also have the option to mute the original audio or hear it at a lower volume.
There are a few requirements to have this feature available:
The meeting host must have a Pro, Business, Education, or Enterprise Zoom account
Have Language Interpretation enabled
It’s a meeting with an automatically generated meeting ID
Zoom desktop client, web client, or mobile app for all participants
Take note that the Language Interpretation cannot be started or managed if you’re using the Zoom mobile app or web client. If you’re using the mobile app or web client, you can only listen to the interpretation audio and view the interpreted text. Language Interpretation also only works during the main session, not in breakout rooms.
There are several steps you need to do to enable and use Zoom’s Language Interpretation, depending on whether you’re the meeting host, the interpreter, or an attendee.
Here is a quick rundown on how to enable Zoom Language Interpretation and add language interpreters for meeting hosts:
Sign in to the Zoom web portal.
In the navigation menu, click Meetings.
Click Schedule a Meeting.
Next to Meeting ID, select Generate Automatically. This setting is required for language interpretation.
Next to Interpretation, select the Enable language interpretation check box. If you previously selected the Enable language interpretation by default check box at the account, group, or user level, this check box will already be selected and enabled as a default setting for all scheduled meetings.
Enter the information for your interpreters.
To modify the list of interpreters, click Edit. To add additional interpreters, click + Add Interpreter. Then, enter the information for your interpreters.
To remove interpreters, click the ellipses next to the interpreter's name. Then, click Remove This Interpreter.
To resend email invitations, click the email icon next to the interpreter's name.
To copy email invitations, click the ellipses next to the interpreter's name. Then, click Copy Invitation.
Click Save when you are finished.
The languages you select for interpreters will create audio channels for those languages in your meeting, but not all of these channels have to be used in the meeting. The pre-assigned interpreters must be signed in to the account associated with the chosen email address. If they are not signed in with that email address when joining the meeting or webinar, they will not be recognized as an interpreter. However, the host can also assign them to be the interpreter in the meeting.
This process is similar to enabling language interpretation for webinars. In the navigation menu, click Webinars, then click Schedule a Webinar; follow Steps 3-6.
Sign in to the Zoom desktop client.
Start or join a meeting.
Once your meeting has started, click Interpretation in the meeting controls. You can add or remove interpreters from this menu if necessary.
Click Start to begin the interpretation sessions. After the host clicks Start, the interpreters will receive a message that they have been assigned a language. Interpreters and attendees can now click Interpretation in the meeting controls and select a language channel.
An interpreter will hear the original meeting audio which they can translate. Interpreters also only have access to the language channel they have been assigned to. Meanwhile, participants in a language channel will hear the translated audio and also the original audio at a lower volume. The original audio volume will return to 100% 8 seconds after an interpreter has stopped speaking.
Click Interpretation in the meeting controls.
Once the Language Interpretation window opens, click End to stop the sessions. The host can also click Manage Language Interpretation to make changes to the interpreter settings during a session.
There are some things to note as a language interpreter in a Zoom meeting:
You can only broadcast to one language channel at a time. This eliminates unnecessary language crossover and helps reduce confusion.
You can switch between the native audio channel of the meeting and the interpretation audio channel you have been assigned to.
You can only join language interpretation from your computer audio. You cannot use Zoom’s “dial-in” or “call me” phone audio features.
Once a meeting host assigns you as a language interpreter, a window will appear, notifying you of which language you are responsible for.
Sign in to Zoom desktop client.
Join a meeting that you have been assigned as an interpreter by the host.
Click OK to accept the language you have been assigned to interpret.
Click the language of the audio channel you want to broadcast to.
Speak in the language of the audio channel you are broadcasting to.
As an interpreter, you are listening to the main audio channel by default, but you can change the audio channel to listen to another interpreter. This is known as an interpretation relay. This can be useful when you don't understand the main language channel and need to interpret from another available language.
For example, you may not understand the English spoken in the main channel, but do understand French. You can instead listen to the French interpretation channel and translate that into the language you were assigned to interpret.
Next to Listening in, click the drop-down menu.
Select the audio channel you want to listen to. By default, Main audio is selected.
If you’re an attendee, you can only listen to the interpreted audio through your computer audio online. Language Interpretation is not available for the “dial-in” or “call me” phone audio features. You can also broadcast back into the main audio channel if you unmute your audio and speak.
In your meeting/webinar controls, click Interpretation.
For Android/iOS, tap the ellipses.
Click the language that you would like to hear.
For Android/iOS, tap Language Interpretation, then tap the language you want to hear.
To hear the interpreted language only, click/tap Mute Original Audio.
For Android/iOS, click Done.
While Zoom has managed to resolve many issues multilingual meetings are facing, there are still possible setbacks that can prevent this feature from being utilized to its maximum potential.
One notable hurdle is the multiple factors that might come with interpreters themselves. Several situations include the absence of the interpreter, or the interpreter being late during the time of the meeting. This can happen when interpreters receive references late or not at all, causing them to not be familiar with the meeting subject. This can result in interpreters needing to review the materials beforehand, or just not push through with the job at all, disrupting the continuity of the meeting and impacting the effectiveness of the overall information relay.
Related to this concern is the lack of backup interpreters when this scenario does happen. This poses another problem, as unexpected issues or emergencies may leave meetings without necessary language support.
Zoom, despite one of the more commonly used business communication tools, is still a piece of technology. Some people may not be aware of or may not know how to access its language interpretation features. This can range from meeting hosts not being able to set the meeting details correctly to assigning interpreters on the incorrect audio channel, interpreters not knowing which channel they are assigned to and which main audio to tune into, and attendees not knowing there is an interpreter for their native tongue and unsure of which button to press to listen to them.
This can potentially lead to technical glitches and interruptions, souring the multilingual meeting experience for everyone involved.
Additionally, even if everyone involved in the meeting knows which button does what, everything else might still go wrong. Intermittent internet connection, wrong meeting links, missing passcodes, slow devices, broken equipment such as cameras and microphones— technology has done a lot to make people’s lives easier, but they’re not constantly foolproof.
One of the most important parts of interpretation is the audio. Even if interpreters are sure that their computer equipment is top-of-the-line and their internet connection is stable, perhaps the interpreter has a lot of background noise, or is forced to do their job in an environment where they can’t hear the main audio properly. Maybe the microphone they’re using always cuts off. This greatly affects their interpretation quality, and in extension their overall performance during the Zoom session.
Even when all is said and done, many multilingual session participants still depend greatly on the available interpreters for a meeting or session. If the interpreters themselves are skipping lines or just translating the ideas with the barest amount of effort, it prevents the attendees from learning the presented information effectively.
But not everything is the fault of the interpreters; if the interpreter are doing their job as best they can but the speakers are talking too fast for them to keep up, that’s also a halt on mutually beneficial productivity. If there are many interpreters for different languages, there’s a chance of them overlapping when speaking, leading to confusion and miscommunication during the meeting.
There are multiple ways in which these services can go wrong, but rest assured—there are efficient tactics to minimize or completely evade these problems. Collaborating with professional interpretation services rather than depending on real-time translation will help minimize the issues and guarantee a more seamless communication experience for everyone involved:
Provide Interpreter Details in Advance: Provide interpreter names and email addresses to the attendees at least 24 hours before the Zoom session. This ensures smoother communication lines and allows for any necessary adjustments with ample notice.
Ensure Correct Assignment of Interpreters: For meeting hosts, make sure you’ve assigned interpreters to the correct channels, to avoid confusion and ensure a more streamlined multilingual experience.
Use Correct Zoom Links: Set up and verify that the Zoom link being used has the language interpretation feature turned on. This results in minimizing the risk of login issues and ensuring interpreters access the right virtual spaces.
Request Reference Materials Early: Provide interpreters reference materials at least 24-48 hours before the meeting. Interpreters will then be able to adequately prepare and deliver accurate translations.
Remind and Confirm Attendance: Proactively remind both attendees and interpreters of their participation in the Zoom session. Confirm their availability 1-2 hours before the scheduled meeting for effective coordination.
Early Login for Tech Checks: Encourage everyone participating in the meeting or webinar to log in before the session to both familiarize themselves with Zoom’s features and to conduct thorough technical checks, addressing and resolving any issues well before the scheduled start time.
Prepare Interpreters for Camera Use: If necessary, ensure interpreters are prepared and presentable for camera use, enhancing the visual aspects of the interpretation service. This also applies to languages that might need gestures and hand movements, such as sign language.
Assign a Person Familiar with Zoom: Designate someone who is well-versed in Zoom features as a co-host. They can be an additional pair of hands for both operational control and coordination between participants and interpreters during the meeting.
Zoom’s language interpretation feature is a win for both accessibility and multilingualism. Zoom, and by extension, other online communication tools, has managed to broaden people’s capabilities to reach a better understanding just by speaking their native language. By understanding the limitations and implementing best practices, organizers can empower their Zoom meetings with language accessibility, fostering effective communication and collaboration across diverse linguistic backgrounds. And through careful planning, technological knowledge, and clear communication, meetings across the world through different mother tongues will always be successful and engaging for everyone involved.
Raphaella Funelas is a creative writer who graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Studies, specializing in Language. She likes learning about anything new in any field, and has pursued that interest through a writing career. She always has an ear on the ground for any exciting topics, and an enthusiasm to share any newfound knowledge through her words.