ULG's Language Services Blog

How to Decide What Type of Interpreting Services to Offer

According to the US Census, approximately 68 million Americans speak a language other than English at home. Many of these people need interpreting services to communicate effectively in English and avoid misunderstandings. Whether you’re responsible for language access or just trying to better serve customers and employees with language needs, the challenge is not only finding the right service provider but also knowing which type of interpretation is right for the situation. A sensitive medical appointment demands a different approach than an urgent government meeting, a parent-teacher conference, a global business conference, or a standard customer service call.  

Read this guide to get in-depth information on each type of interpretation service so you can select the perfect option, or mix of options, for your organization and the communities you serve.  

Types of Interpretation  

There are four main types of interpretation services, distinguished by the type of technology used and the mode of interpretation provided. Each type has its own pros, cons, and ideal use cases. Let’s take a closer look: 

On-Site Interpretation (OSI) 

What it is: This form of in-person interpretation allows the most personal approach because people are in the same room together.  

The pros: OSI is unparalleled for its personal touch, critical in settings where trust and cultural understanding are a necessity. Ideal for complex or sensitive interactions, OSI allows interpreters to pick up on and convey subtle non-verbal cues, fostering deeper connections.  

The cons: Depending on the language pair, you may need to schedule in advance, and it may be difficult to find a suitable interpreter. OSI may also cost more than other options.  

When to Use On-site Interpretation 

OSI is the traditional go-to for the following situations:  

Healthcare: OSI is often used for patient consultations, especially in specialties like therapy and pediatrics. Because the interpreter is in the room, OSI used to be the best way to overcome cultural barriers, including body language or posture, that can be too confusing without an adequately trained interpreter.   

Government and Legal: In legal proceedings, accurate and immediate interpretation is crucial. OSI is commonly employed here for both accuracy and confidentiality. It’s also a good choice for public meetings, hearings, and public service announcements.  

Education: OSI is one option for parent-teacher conferences and other meetings where all parties are able to meet face to face in the same room.  

Over-the-Phone Interpretation (OPI) 

What it is: An interpreter located remotely handles joins the conversation over the phone.   

The pros: Quick, convenient and cost-effective, OPI is best for immediate needs where body language and other visual cues are not essential. No scheduling is necessary, and you can have an interpreter on the line in seconds.  

The cons: With OPI, neither the interpreter nor the person who needs language help can see each other. Since 55% of communication is nonverbal, this isn’t ideal.  

When to Use Over-the-Phone Interpretation 

Healthcare: OPI is best suited for scheduling appointments, preventative care, and answering questions about benefits.    

Government and Legal:  Government agencies frequently use OPI for quick, multilingual communication across different regions and to make helplines and hotlines accessible to everyone.    

Customer Service and Call Centers:  OPI is the natural choice for customer service and phone calls in all sectors.   

Video Remote Interpretation (VRI) 

What it is: An interpreter located remotely joins the conversation through a video call.  

The pros: A blend of OSI's personalization and OPI's convenience, VRI is ideal when visual contact is necessary, but in-person presence isn't possible or practical. It provides the opportunity to see body language, facial expressions, and room dynamics. It can also make it easier to find an interpreter quickly for less commonly spoken languages.  

We often don’t think about how much and how quickly information is communicated and received by our faces and body language. Additionally, being able to see a person when you’re talking to them can determine the dynamic of the conversation and the individuals involved. Without face-to-face interaction, even virtually, you may be assuming that the individual understands when that might not be the case. 

The cons: VRI depends on technology to work, and technical difficulties or internet connection issues can impact the clarity of the video call. You’ll also need a quiet area for the call to take place, along with adequate lighting. Because of these potential issues, VRI is not always a suitable replacement for an in-person interpreter. 

When to Use Video Remote Interpretation: 

Patient Consultations:  VRI is an excellent fit in any situation that requires quick access to an interpreter and a personal touch. In the medical field, it’s increasingly becoming the preferred choice for in-person patient consultations as it offers the ability to pick up on nonverbal cues without the potential discomfort of an interpreter they just met being in the room while sensitive topics are discussed and patient satisfaction stays the same as with OSI.    

Telemedicine: VRI has also become increasingly popular in telemedicine, allowing patients and healthcare providers to communicate effectively when an in-person interpreter would not be feasible.  

Government & Legal Proceedings: There are also use cases in government and legal proceedings, particularly for virtual appointments. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, one municipality used VRI to provide interpretation services for residents who needed social services but were unable to meet in person.   

Education: In education, VRI is a good fit for virtual parent-teacher conferences, helping non-English-speaking parents stay engaged in their children's education. 

Remote Simultaneous Interpretation (RSI) 

What it is: Like VRI, RSI takes place remotely through video relay, but the interpretation takes place as the participants speak, with no delay.  

The pros: For live events or meetings involving multiple languages, RSI facilitates real-time interpretation without interrupting the flow of dialogue. It's perfect for multi-lingual conferences or large group settings, enabling seamless communication across languages. 

The cons: As with VRI, you’ll need to invest in appropriate equipment to get an optimal RSI experience, and it’s not always an appropriate substitute for an in-person interpreter because of potential tech issues. Because it requires a special skillset, RSI also requires more investment than over-the-phone interpretation, though still less than bringing an interpreter on-site.    

When to Use Remote Simultaneous Interpretation  

Healthcare: Like VRI, RSI is an excellent option for patient consultations, especially in complex and emotionally charged situations when the delays of traditional interpretation could cause frustration.  

For example, one children’s hospital used RSI to assess children with a rare neurological condition for a clinical trial. With RSI, these highly sensitive consultations were able to happen in real time with no delays, pauses, or breaks in communication. 

Government and Legal: RSI is helpful for public meetings, hearings, and public service announcements where constituents speak multiple languages.  

Education: RSI is an excellent choice for school board meetings and public meetings where the participants speak multiple languages.    

Inclusive Business Meetings and Conferences: RSI is a boon for international business meetings and conferences, allowing seamless communication among participants speaking different languages. 

Let’s Create a Customized Interpretation Services Plan 

Which types of interpreting services will work best for your organization? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. 

To provide multilingual individuals with the range of languages they require and provide them with a quality experience while maximizing your budget, you’ll likely need to offer multiple options depending on the touchpoint and the situation. 

Planning ahead is key to seamlessly supporting these consumers, and our team of experts is here to help.  

For more on how to improve the experience your organization offers multilingual individuals, take a look at our Language Access Roadmap to gauge where you currently are and where you would like to go. Our experts can help you craft a plan to get there.