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Monthly Archives: February 2016

Interpreters: We Need To Talk

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 23, 2016

There’s a silent contagion that threatens to kill my profession. It infects both new interpreters, who should be immune and more experienced interpreters, who should know better. It neuters conversation, strangles mental health and suffocates any hope of recognition.

It goes by a camouflaged misnomer, “confidentiality.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not for one second saying that we should tell the world that “Mick Smith” spent a few hours at the proctologist or that “Made Up Ltd” had a dip in their profits, which means that the MD is risking his job. Sharing that sort of personally and commercially sensitive information will always be unthinkable for any professional.

Yet too many in our profession still wrongly think that, to be true professionals, we must be some kind of secret agent, with no one, not even our closest family members having any clue about the stresses and strains we have faced that day. In fact, I have even come across one set of terms and conditions which effectively barred interpreters from telling anyone anything about their work, even to the point that all terminology research had to be done by the agency themselves.

There’s a phrase for that kind of thinking: total nonsense. Actually, it is much worse, it is damaging nonsense. How is it damaging? Let me give you three very powerful ways.

1)    Our unnecessary “vow of silence” may be destroying our mental health

Years ago, AIIC did a study of burn out rates among conference interpreters. Now bear in mind that conference interpreters do not traditionally face the kind of traumatic material that can be an everyday reality for court interpreters and public service interpreters. Still, it was found that AIIC members had higher burn out rates than Israeli army officers. Really? Are the “elites” of our profession really that mentally unhealthy?

It is also generally known that social isolation and depression are nigh-on twins. Basically, without a support group, without people you can discuss your day with, your mental health is likely to face a tailspin.

Of course, nothing in the AIIC study points to isolation as the sole cause of excessive burn out rates and it just might be that the problem has since cleared itself up. I sincerely hope it has.

Still, it doesn’t take much imagination to see why overdoing the confidentiality to the point where you can’t tell anyone anything is not a good idea. Even more so given that interpreters do like to share war stories, yet for some, this entirely cathartic process might lead to a pang of guilt.

For the good of our own mental health, we need to create safe places where we can not only share war stories but debrief on the contours of each assignment, mentally unpacking any baggage that might have built up. We need relationships with people who can talk us through our decision-making, understand our fears and settle us down after a particularly difficult or stressful job.

2)    Having a wrong view of confidentiality kills professional development

The idea of debriefing leads nicely to the next reason why we need to talk about interpreting: if we don’t, we won’t improve.

Go to almost any other profession, from medicine to music and you will find a consistent pattern of people being supervised or coached from their first tentative stages to their greatest triumphs. It’s almost taken as read that no one will improve just by gaining experience. After all, you can do the same thing a million times and still be doing it wrong.

There is a myth the interpreters are somehow special. It’s only very recently that interpreters have discovered the need for deliberate, mentored practice and so the ideas, let alone the application are still in their infancy. What we are learning, however is that interpreting is not that special. Elisabet Tiselius has shown evidence of experienced interpreters actually performing worse than they did at university.

In short, if we want to improve, we need to be able to coach and supervise each other and that necessarily means not just helping each other with practice outside of assignments but chatting about how we could improve what we do during assignments.

3)    If we can’t talk about interpreting, we can’t promote it

There is one last reason that talking about our work. If no one knows the difference we make, no one is going to hire us.

I got into a twitter chat recently with the President of FIT and a leading professor of interpreting. The conclusion was that the only way to combat the eternally bad press that interpreting gets is by getting ahead of the news cycle and generating some positive PR. If we are to do that, we really do need interpreters to blog, tweet, and talk about the times that the client sold thousands of units or the diplomats did the deal or the patient was treated.

Again, we can leave the specific details out but something as simple as:

“Did a job for a major construction equipment manufacturer. Three articles in the target language press.”

or

“Interpreted at the doctors. Patient is now fully well.”

would go a long way to helping people understand the power and importance of our work.

But what about clients?

This is all well and good; some might say, but is it really necessary to discuss this stuff in public? Honestly, I thought long and hard and discussed with colleagues the merits of making this a public blog post, rather than an article for a magazine. But the truth is, since we are talking about client confidentiality, it makes sense to involve them in the conversation.

So, clients, what do you think of all this? Would you be happy with interpreters who consulted specialists and kept improving their skills by working with coaches? Would you be happy for us to talk about the pleasure and honour of working with you?

What about interpreters? What’s your take? How comfortable would you feel about working with a coach, debriefing after each assignment and sharing your successes?

Four Secrets of Delivering Great Service to Clients

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 16, 2016

How often are you blown away by the quality of service you receive?

Many companies seem to hide behind automatic telephone menus, impenetrable terms and conditions and feigning ignorance, doing all they can to make it hard for their clients. Actually, even in the very worst cases, some companies, like a certain toy manufacturer, even try to transfer the blame for things going wrong.

Yet, in today’s crowded markets, companies who stand out with their service levels will win the day. The events manager who hires the very best suppliers, even when it reduces their immediate margins, the interpreter who watches the room and not the clock, the translator whose research goes beyond terminology to discover the messages that work for a specific market.

But what does that even look like? For those of us in business-to-business markets, there are 4 clear signs of great service.

1)    Great service starts from first contact

I am on the look-out for a good binder to bind my PhD thesis.  I wrote to three different suppliers, one of which came recommended. However, despite the glowing recommendations and assurances that they do a great job, I wrote them off as a possibility within a few minutes. Why would I do that?

The answer is simple: their emails were awful. Sure, I am not employing them to write emails but, like it or not, people judge us by the quality of our communication. If someone asks for a quote, don’t send them prices for all the component parts and fail to add them all together. If someone sends questions, answer them all.

Basic details like starting with a nice greeting and ending with a professional sign-off can make a world of difference. Similarly, sounding approachable and friendly on the telephone or having a good handshake can make an unbelievable difference.

2)    Great service offers custom solutions

Recently, I received an email from a client, asking some questions about the setup of interpreting at an event. In those cases, there are always two solutions. You can either send a generic, flat response, or you can read through the requirements carefully and create a plan that is tailor-made for the client. For me, generic is never an option.

We are all time-poor and there will always be a temptation to go for off-the-peg generic solutions but the more generic you are, the greater your competition. If you can show that you have really thought through what your client wants and can deliver it well, you will have a strong advantage over anyone else.

Imagine that you are running a multilingual event. While it might sound good enough to add in a line saying that you will “source interpreters”, that alone is pretty generic. It’s much better to show you know your stuff by explaining just how you would source interpreters and better yet, to describe how you will ensure that you get the right interpreters for the right role at the event. After all, the demands of interpreting conversations for exhibitors are completely different to handling the highlight address by a leading expert.

3)    Great service is human

No matter how good technology gets, people will always want to talk to people. How often have you desperately wanted to find the “talk to an operator” button in an automated menu? How many times have you been frustrated by websites that just send you round in circles when you need help?

For events, apps will never replace competent staff and skilled suppliers. People will always want to talk to people. For conference interpreters, ensuring that what you say is connecting with the audience will always win more plaudits than making sure you echo the exact linguistic structure of the original speech.

4)    Great service integrates the big picture and the details

I spend a lot of time chatting with translators. Translators make a living being fiendishly brilliant with details. They don’t just understand words; they sleep, eat, live and breathe them. For a translator to really succeed, however, they need to learn how to take their natural passion for tiny details and fuse it with an ability to understand what a write is trying to do through an entire text.

It’s the same in event management. Sure, you want to get the décor to be perfect and the layout to be on the money but those details only make sense in the context of what the client wants the entire event to achieve. While we might admire those who can keep track of every minute of the conference agenda, clients will ultimately judge events by their results.

For all of us, whether we are suppliers or managers, accommodation providers or entertainers, the challenge is to blow clients away with our attention to detail while amazing them by delivering better results than they could possibly imagine. We can only do that by paying attention to how we communicate, creating customised solutions, treating our clients like human beings and nailing the details so the big picture works.

Why Fast-Talking MEPs are not just Bad News for Interpreters

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 8, 2016

European Parliament, Strabourg. (c) Cédric Puisney via Wikipedia

It’s unusual for interpreters to make the news. Yet, a recent article on the BBC website discussed an appeal from the Secretary General of the European Union for MEPs to talk more slowly and use their native language. If you work in the language industries, this kind of appeal will be old news. But there might be more to this than meets the eye. In fact, there is a lot here for professional speakers too. But first, let’s deal with the obvious.

As an interpreter myself, I must admit that my first reaction was a kind of resigned shrug. Careless speakers will be careless. Interpreters are taught summarising skills for a reason. To some extent, we just have to get on with it. That would seem to be the obvious response.

But this “just getting on with it”, while it might be a badge of professionalism to some, masks the real issues. It’s not just interpreters who suffer when speakers go a mile a minute. Actually, everyone suffers.

Way back in the 1970s, psychologist David Gerver and his team locked down the sweet spot for excellent interpreting. They found that interpreters performed their best with texts given at a speed of 100 to 120 words per minute. Too slow, and they found it difficult to store what the speaker said. Too fast, and they got lost.

They argued that this is not just a quirk of interpreting. It is very likely that the reason why this is a sweet spot for interpreting is because it is a sweet spot for human cognition. Put simply, if you want people to keep up and take in what you are saying, aiming for a speed in-between those two limits will help you. (Think ‘BBC Newsreader’ and you will be on the right track).

So, if MEPs are racing at the speed of light, it won’t just be the interpreters who are suffering. It is likely that even people listening to them directly will be getting lost. And, if what they are saying has any importance at all, that can only be a bad thing.

Instead of playing the “interpreters are struggling” card then, might it make more sense to argue that speaking too quickly is actually bad for democracy? If you want a real discussion, if you want the voices of your constituents to be heard, s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. If you don’t, you are the one who will suffer. Oh and the people who elected you!

Of course, professional speakers should know this stuff already but it is always worth a reminder. There is always the temptation to stuff a speech so full of content that the only want to get through it is to speak like a chipmunk on caffeine high. Except it doesn’t work. Your audience will actually get less out of that talk than they would have if you slowed down and really nailed one or two key points.

One more thing. No one has yet asked why MEPs might be racing so much. You never know, they might be the victims too. If they are given a limited timeslot in which to have their say, could you blame them for trying to say as much as possible? If this is the problem, we might want to lobby for longer and more frequent parliamentary sessions.

Problems with interpreting are rarely about interpreting itself. After all, interpreting is a people activity with language attached, not a language activity with people attached. Once we look at the people problems, we get much closer to finding a solution. And in this case, it seems that the issue is much less about interpreting than it is about good public speaking, democracy and scheduling. And those are areas where we all could improve.