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Brexit and the Future of Interpreting Part II

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 30, 2016

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I remember sitting in a church meeting once where the preacher was waxing lyrical about the vision of the organisation. Next to me, my wife sat nonplussed. Afterwards, she said to me “what he said sounded great but I was waiting for him to tell me how we were going to do it.”

Perhaps my last post left you in that position. Well, while I am no Nostradamus, I do have a few ideas of how we not only weather this storm but catch a few fish too.

 

  • Let’s make good headlines

 

Even before swathes of the UK rushed headlong into Brexit (or something like it), I was arguing that we need to change the way lobby for status. Arguing that we are necessary is a very limited strategy. Arguing that we make a positive difference isn’t.

 

This is even more important now. We need to immediately begin pushing (suitably anonymised) stories of what it is we do and how we make a positive difference. In a news world dominated by political wrangling and falling shares, people are hungry for good news. Let’s give it to them with both barrels, advertising that we are still open for business and still adding to the UK and EU economy.

 

In fact, this is the very thing that Prof Ian Mason was arguing for at the current Critical Link conference in Edinburgh. So, here it is, from today, I challenge all interpreters to post anonymised stories of the difference they make to their clients and tag it (on facebook, twitter or Instagram) with the #visible1nt hashtag. Let’s take hold of our own PR!

 

  • Let’s get organised

 

No, I am not in favour of an interpreters’ union. Instead, I want to suggest that we create networks, both locally and nationally, to make it easier and simpler for clients to get in contact with great interpreters. Let’s construct ready-made teams that can bid for the congresses, fora and negotiations that will doubtless come up. Let’s tell clients how they can find expert interpreters in Edinburgh, in Glasgow, in Liverpool, in Manchester, wherever and however they need them and let’s partner with people in related services.

 

Also, we desperately need to start regular interpreter meetups to encourage and help each other. I will be creating one in Edinburgh (click that link). If you send me a link, I will add yours too.

 

  • Let’s create

 

We need to be driving positive change and the only way to do that is to get together and brainstorm, thinking wild and free about what might be possible. Then we need to get ours heads together with national associations to implement the things that the industry really needs. No one else is going to change our profession except us and our associations.

 

  • Let’s find opportunity

 

In his book, Power to Create, Tim Redmond talks about two kinds of business people. One kind, when faced with a big problem, go into a steep nosedive of worry, doubt and fear. If they recover, it’s by some miracle but their confidence is never the same. The other kind of businessperson sees the same problem but refuse to be knocked out by it. In his words, they “hover” over the problem, praying about it, thinking about it, reading about what others did in similar situations – refusing to let it go until they find an answer.

 

For people like that, every problem is just a new opportunity to grow. If it sounds like a cliché, it is because it almost feels too good to be true but it isn’t.

 

Take me, for example. As well as being an interpreter, I am an interpreting researcher. In the early days of my PhD, I would hit the floor at every problem and bump in the road. Funding denied? Cue two days of whining and moaning. Book unavailable? Cue at least an hour of complaining. You get the picture.

 

Eventually, I realised that that is a loser strategy. I never grew and complaining never helped. Slowly, painfully, I learned the skill of bouncing. Yes, rejection and problems still hurt. This week, I heard about another funding rejection, which still stung. But it didn’t take me all day to get back on my feet. There truly is a way to take even the most unpromising result and make something of it. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t even be here to write this.

 

Does Brexit still hurt? You bet it does. Can we afford to let it cripple us? No way.

 

Interpreters, we have a duty to our profession, to our fellow professionals, to our countries and to ourselves to face this down. Let’s make good headlines, get organised, create and find opportunities together. No one really knows where the Brexit wagon is heading but I know that interpreter can find a way to make the world a better place while it trundles along. Who’s with me?

Brexit and the Future of Interpreting Part I

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 27, 2016

 

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No client, no matter how powerful, can force interpreting into recession. No agreement, no matter how unfair, can spell the end of our profession. The people responsible for the future of interpreting are professional interpreters, and it will always be that way.

Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence, p. 101

 

When I wrote those words a few months ago, I had no idea how prescient they would become. Within less than a week, my home country has gone from a relatively stable, peaceful set of islands to being a Divided Kingdom, riven by generational enmity, regional rivalries and political upheavel. A simple question “Remain in the EU or Leave the EU” has turned into a Gordian knot. And interpreting is caught in it.

 

To say that interpreters have benefitted from the existence of the EU is to  state a truism. Freedom of movement of people and capital has created conferences, press events, and policy fora, as well as increasing the need for medical interpreters, court interpreters and interpreters in business negotiations, lobbying meetings and European Works Councils. And, for the most part, despite the often negative press, this has brought incredible economic benefit to the UK. We have literally created jobs, helped deals get done and reduced the cost for medical treatment by decreasing the likelihood of mistakes.

 

But Brexit is challenging that. Over the past few days, I have read more worried messages about the future of our industry than ever before. Yes, some of us got riled by the rise of technology but I have never seen so many people contemplating leaving the country – an idea that makes even more sense in the light of the increase in racist incidents against nationals of other EU countries.

 

It’s isn’t pretty but it’s here. Actually, that could basically sum up a lot of changes in the history of interpreting. As my expert colleague Alexander Drechsel wrote not too long ago, interpreting has always seen disruption. From the introduction of simultaneous interpreting to the rise of the tablet, interpreting has found a way to adjust, reinvent itself and somehow come out stronger. Disruption? It’s just history repeating, he says.

 

He is right. A divided world needs experts in communicating across cultures, nations and tribes. A worried world where people feel like they need to retreat into their own little bubbles needs people who are adept at offering people wider vistas. A world that is threatened by xenophobes and racists needs walking, breathing examples of acceptance of people whatever their background.

 

I know few other professions as needed today as interpreters. Yes, the sheer complexity of international politics can be and is a boon for conference interpreters. There is no international negotiating table in today’s world without a rack of chattering interpreting booths around it. Few meaningful deals can get done nowadays without an interpreter or four making sure that communication actually works.

 

Sure, things will be uncomfortable. Absolutely, the old ways (and perhaps places) of doing business are looking pretty bleak but we are mostly small business so we can be nimble decisions that the big players simply can’t. In a matter of months, we can change country. In a matter of weeks, we can get new clients. In a couple of years, we can have a new specialism. We can adapt. Even if adapting hurts.

 

What choice do we have? Anger is understandable. Fear is almost inevitable but interpreting is a business that can and does survive crises. We already have!

 

So, while turmoil grips nations, while companies need to negotiate contract changes, while people with different native languages check into GPs, courts, hospitals and police stations, the need for these three professions will remain: loving pastors, wise leaders, and expert interpreters. And the one that helps the other two work across the boundaries of nation, language, and state is interpreting.

To be continued…

Who Controls Your Funnel?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 20, 2016

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Most interpreters outside of the big conference cities will know what it is like to live in a market controlled by a few big players. Sometimes, a handful of agencies can pick off the vast majority of work, leaving only the newest and smaller clients to be hoovered up by direct hiring.

 

In many cases, that can actually work to everyone’s advantage. Where the agencies pay well and communicate clearly, they can use their substantial weight to ensure that the market runs efficiently and that good interpreting leads to rewards. As soon as one unscrupulous agency enters the fray, however, the balance can be disturbed and it can become a fairly swift race to the bottom.

 

Yet there are very few markets where it has to be this way. Yes, hospitals and courts may be pushed into the arms of national contracts, but there are almost always exceptions and, of course, there is no reason why a trained court interpreter cannot reskill to jump into business negotiation interpreting or even conference interpreting.

 

What it comes down to often is business decision-making. In the wider corporate world, businesses analyse the route that prospective clients take from first contact to paying for services and label it a “funnel”. Most software for monitoring the traffic to business websites will allow you to track people as they go from one page to another following a path that should eventually lead to asking for a quote and then booking you for work.

 

So who owns your funnel? Whose responsibility is it to get you initial leads – that is, contact with potential clients? At that point, who is in charge of managing the process from interest, to a request for an estimate and then the final sale?

 

Given some indicators I have seen in my own key markets, I have decided to start taking charge of my own funnel. No, this doesn’t mean refusing to work for agencies but instead seeing them as one kind of client, alongside others. I have to manage their route from initial contact to sale but I also want to attract direct clients, who will take a very different route.

 

The key thing for me is not which kind of client is heading towards any given sale but the fact that I don’t want to hand over control of my sales funnel over to anyone else. Too often, I had become reliant on agencies to do the marketing legwork, nail down the client and send them to me, rather than going out and doing that work myself, on my terms.

 

It’s not a quick process and its one I will be posting about more as time goes on but for now, even just the feeling of ownership has been its own reward. How about you? Who manages your sales funnel? Would you like more control or are you happy with the way things are?

Are interpreters talking to themselves?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 17, 2016

I had the pleasure of attending the Meetings Show this week. The sheer size of the event made it almost certain that I would bump into someone who needed interpreting. It also taught me that we can easily find ourselves stuck in patterns that can slow us down.

 

One of the most subtle of these is found in our patterns of interactions both offline and online. As much as we need support from other interpreters and as much as referrals can be vital, if we want new clients, we probably won’t find them on interpreter forums.

 

When it comes to marketing, we need to leave behind the echo chamber of the interpreting world and head to client events. At least once a year, we need to leave the safety of “our people” and find out what life is like at the other side of the mic.

 

The most obvious reason for this is that personal contact makes marketing much easier. You get more personal contact in one hour at a seminar or tradeshow than you do in a week online. And, of course, people start expecting your email!

 

Once you get a feel for the world your potential clients dwell in, you can begin to understand their pain points and challenges. You might even find yourself sympathising with them, rather than writing criticisms of their spending decisions!

 

None of this obviates the need for Supportive Interpreting Communities. In fact, the two go hand in hand. As we grow and sustain ourselves with the support of our fellow interpreters, we gain confidence about our work and get better at selling it to clients. We need to be both in our own community of practice and in the world of our clients. But most of us find the latter much harder than the former.

 

What about you? When was the last time you went to a client event?

The Meetings Show: A Visitor’s Perspective

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 16, 2016

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It was big, it was bold, it was the only place that brought Scotland to within five steps of London. The Meetings Show is an annual three-day showcase of the smartest venues, the smoothest DMCs, the most streamlined techheads and Mr Holland, who is enough of a phenomenon to merit an individual mention.

 

This year, I found the show even more relaxed than usual but still serious enough to have moments of thoughtfulness. Within less than five minutes, I had gained a very useful contact in the publishing world (who will be getting an email from me today) and had realised that this year, wandering about semi-randomly would actually be a good strategy. That was a good thing, since it took me two hours to locate a guidebook!

 

I only managed one of the seminars, a rather tense discussion of Brexit, where the two panellists who wanted us to leave the EU had very little to lose if we did. It is little wonder that a quick show of hands showed an overwhelming majority in favour of remaining.

 

Thankfully, however, the referendum seemed not to be on the minds of many of the exhibitors. Wedgewood DMC seemed to have sent some of their friendliest and most knowledgeable people to the show, PA Life’s team were top-notch and Sheffield brought sherbet – an inspired idea!

 

The only organisations I really missed were the event associations. Apart from ICCA, who seem to practically be resident at The Meetings Show, you had to rely on bumping into someone to meet other association reps. That is disappointing but perfectly understandable too. It was a very crowded floor, with the most space and most prominent locations given to destinations.

 

For tech and service suppliers, a slightly remote location sufficed, which probably did reduce traffic to them. In future years, if I book a stand, I will want to grab a spot near one of the main thoroughfares. Those who had the stands in the corners seemed to lack much of the life and buzz of the big central spots. Hopefully, in future years, there will be a supplier showcase to match the destination showcase and balance things out a bit.

 

Still, overall, I was even more impressed with the show this year than last year. As an independent freelancer, the feeling of being able to attend at the same level as the multinational corporations was welcome. And conversations flowed as freely with the massive DMCs and agencies as they did with the new players.

 

You simply can’t go to The Meetings Show without coming across Mr Holland, the orange-suited whirlwind. No, I have no idea how he managed to twist his legs like that. Yes, he did make me all the more excited about my visit to Utrecht in October. I have no idea how he smiles so much nor how he can carry on twitter conversations while welcoming all and sundry to his shores.

 

His presence and demeanour echoed the atmosphere of the show itself. Fun, welcoming, bright and most of all, enough to put a smile on your face. Interpreters absolutely should get along next year and translators wanting work connected to travel, events, or hospitality should consider it too. There is simply nowhere else like it.

Preparing for The Meetings Show

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 13, 2016

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It’s that time of year when I clear my diary for a day, get ahead of routine admin, try to get my head round London, memorise another hashtag, and confirm exactly who I will be having coffee with. Yes, it’s the build-up to my visit to The Meetings Show. Before I get into the 5 stages of my preparation, I want to share my 4 reasons for going in the first place.

 

  • The sheer size is incredible

Last year, I went to the show with a colleague and we had to split up to cover all the stands we wanted to. Just click this link and you can see why. Exhibitor after exhibitor representing all areas of the events industry and companies of various sizes. There are even local convention bureaux and, last year at least, people going to extraordinary lengths to get you to come to their stand. (Thank you, Netherlands Tourism Board for Mr Holland.)

In a room that busy, you would have to be a bit of a klutz to not find anything or anyone of interest. I know that last year in a single hour, I found a very useful contact, a possible provider of client data, an events industry association and an offer to write a blog post. Since I will be better prepared this year and can stay for the entire day rather than a few hours, I know I can find even more.

 

  • The playing field is even

Sure, the big DMCs have funky stands and tons of staff. Yes, the mammoth brands can afford to dress people in weird costimes to catch your eye but never underestimate the AV guy sitting on his own behind a bare table, or the lady sitting charging her phone or the head of an events website who wants to introduce you to some of his mates (thank you, Alan Newton). At The Meetings Show, everyone from the CEO to the newbie interpreter is available for a chat.

 

  • It’s easy to get to

I live in warm sunny Edinburgh. To get to The Meetings Show, I pop down to my local airport, grab a couple of trains and I am there. Compare that to some out of town shows and you can see the difference.

 

  • Learn while you schmooze

Of course, I will be picking up industry tidbits on every stand but this year, I can also enjoy the programme of talks and debates. So, I will be listening to Scotland’s top PA talking about international events, watching Alan Newton debate Brexit and maybe learning how to create value in an association.

 

All those reasons add-up to an unmissable show so here is how I will be preparing.

 

1.) Nail down those coffee slots

At last count, I have offered free coffee to six events leaders so we can chat about multilingual meetings. (If you want to chat too, drop me an email or tweet me) That means I have an evening left to nail down exactly where and when I will meet them and what their favourite brew actually is. (Mine is hazelnut hot chocolate with the works, if you feel like buying me one…)

 

2.) Plan my walkaround

Between the coffee and talks, I will be pretty busy, but there will still be some 20 or so exhibitors on my must-see list. While I haven’t yet found an online map, I will be compiling a database of stand numbers to save me precious legwork. The mounds of hot chocolate will help, though.

 

3.) Email the stragglers

There are some potential contacts whom I haven’t even grabbed on twitter yet. I have a very short email list to do to see if they will be there and arrange their coffee time too.

 

4.) Charge my phone and tablet and pack chargers

Last year, livetweeting pushed my phone battery to the edge. Considering that this year, I want to add some selfies with industry leads too, I am going to make sure that the phone is at 100% and carry a spare charger too.

 

5.) Finish pesky travel arrangements

Yep, I have all my tickets but there are still the little details of working out exactly when I need to get up (very, very early), my airport bus ride and checking-in. I only leave that stuff until last because, well, it’s by far the easiest bit of the process.

 

That’s my Meetings Show prep list. What’s yours?

At the End of an Interpreting Day

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 10, 2016

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And that’s it. Eight hours of work, 14 talks, about 20 litres of water spread among 10 interpreters and lots of food.

 

Interpreters are traditionally exhausted at the end of an assignment. Ours isn’t an easy job. There are always surprises in terms of technical terminology, monotonous speakers and the occasional mumbler.

 

But there is also the feeling of mild euphoria. Or maybe that’s just the remnants of the session that went extraordinarily well. It always helps when there is one shift when it just seems to click and, thank God, I had one of them today.

 

We rarely talk about the emotional aspect of interpreting. Clients should be reassured that great interpreters take personal responsibility for producing something that is not just accurate and pleasant to listen to but something that, to the best of our ability, reproduces what the speaker was trying to do. That also means that we can be very self-critical and can take a knock when there is a session that doesn’t go quite to plan.

 

All the excellent interpreters I have ever met take it personally when there is even a slight blip. Maybe we shouldn’t but we do. Maybe it’s just a sign that we still care.

 

Is it any wonder that burnout is so common amongst interpreters? When it takes emotional and mental gymnastics to go from shift to shift and creativity and imagination to go from talk to talk. Interpreting takes guts, technique, and quick thinking and that’s why we love it.

 

I really don’t know if any clients will read this particular post but if they do I want them to know exactly why it is that we can produce excellent work on any given assignment. It’s because we care. We care about you hearing something that is comprehensible and clear. We care about feedback and the state of the rest of the team. We care about getting it right and making the talk sound as convincing and interesting in the second language as it was in the first (or maybe a little better).

 

This unusual passion for creating talks that work that propels us to do some amazing feats. Take this, for instance. Today, one speech was given in Italian. One of the Italian interpreters turned it into some of the clearest and most articulate English I have heard in a long time. She did that not just for the audience but for the French. Dutch, Spanish and German interpreters who were listening to her English and turning that into their own languages.

 

And all this happened at a delay of less than a few seconds. In the business, we call that relay interpreting. Really, we should call it a miracle.

 

Every time I interpret, I am reminded of one simple but powerful truth. In a world battered by xenophobia, bruised by selfishness and pounded by appeals to close up shop and seal ourselves off, there is evidence that something else is possible. Every time and interpreter suits up and walks into a soundproof booth, or a doctor’s office, or a court, or a business meeting, or a school, something amazing, almost divine takes place. For as long as interpreters are there, the language barrier comes down, differences are celebrated and the world seems a little bit smaller.
Why am I an interpreter? Because it brings the world together and makes a difference, that’s why.

This. Is. It.

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 9, 2016

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It’s the final prep day before the big conference tomorrow. Travel is being organised. Videos of many of the speakers have been found. And the team is gelling.

 

This is what interpreters train for and live for.

 

What is strange though is that I have found that I am a better interpreter in real-life than when I am practising. Practise with a talk and I cut my lag, stumble over terms and speak in monotone. Drop me in a live booth and I am there, in the zone, and off-and-running almost instantly.

 

That is strange but I think I know why it happens.

 

Interpreting is the art of being there.

 

Being there in the room. Being there in your mind. Being there watching the reactions on the back of people’s heads. Being there with term sheets blu-tacked to the booth wall. Being there looking up terms for your boothmate on the fly. Being there making split second decisions.

 

Why do I tend to perform worse when practising? Because I am not there.

 

Tomorrow, I will be there and it will be very, very good!

Teamwork Before the Assignment Starts

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 8, 2016

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Today, as I start the terminological research for this upcoming assignment, it’s time to start dialing up the teamwork too. For a start, there is the small matter of introducing myself to the rest of the team and sharing any resources I have found. On top of that, I had a nice call from the agency who are organising the interpreting, which was actually more to do with the book than Friday’s job but it’s always good to chat.

 

I am not the only interpreter to find that teamwork is a big part of the job. In fact, the next episode of Troublesome Terps is dedicated exclusively to booth manners. The fact that we could come up with examples of it working well … and not so well … shows that it is still an important topic.

 

But even before you enter the booth, a quick email, an offer to host term lists on a cloud account (with requisite data security measures and permissions) or even just a simple “hello” can make a big difference. We are all there to keep the clients happy and it takes all of us to do the job.

 

I love that fact that conference interpreting is a team sport. We rely on each other and clients will absolutely judge the success of the job based on their perceptions of whichever bit of the team they have heard and seen. So it pays to not just be on top of our booth skills but also to have good people skills.

 

Hold on, that means we are back to soft skills again. In interpreting, nice interpreters might not finish first but they finish best. And, at the end of the day, if our boothmates look good, we look good. Simple.

The Hidden Variables of a Visible Conference

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 7, 2016

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Great interpreters have learned to never take things at face value. The crumpled suit can be wrapped around a genius AV guy. The book that is falling apart can be a real jewel.

 

The same goes for conferences. Sure, the heading might talk about changing the world or raising the standards or whatever but most attendees might be happy to go home with a few extra business cards, some useful snippets and memories of nice meals. For interpreters, the gap between the publicity material and the real measures of success can be a source of confusion.

 

Take one assignment I had for an industry that manages and processes a raw material (no, I can’t tell you which). If I remember correctly, the conference publicity was all about the bright future of the industry and how to revolutionise it. (Odd how those things always go together.) The French delegation, however, were simply flabbergasted to have an interpreter who knew the right terms and could help them gather the data they needed to make key business decisions.

 

The strange thing that I have found both in my PhD research and in practice is that there can be a chasm between what the organisers want from a conference and what the delegates want. Actually, it’s unusual if there is perfect agreement.

 

So what’s an interpreter to do?

 

Here’s a simple case. I have a bit of Fisheries Policy work under my belt. In those meetings: the organiser wants to get a paper draft that everyone is happy with; the fishermen want as many fishing rights as they can; the scientists want clarity and precision; and the environmentalists want the fishermen to have as few rights as possible. The only workable solution I have found is to interpret in a way that keeps the communication channels open as long as possible and helps people to understand each other. Eventually, with nudges in the right place from a skilled chair, you get agreement in the end.

 

A happy room = a happy chair = good feedback to the agency = more work.

 

With the assignment I am preparing for this time, in a completely different setting, my first job is not to read every shred of paperwork but to comb the website for the purpose set out by the organisers and comb the talks for every indication of what the speakers are trying to do. And no, “inform” is not enough.

 

A finance talk might actually be saying “we are managing your money well, so keep paying your dues on time”. A tech talk might actually be a sales talk in a white coat. A case study might actually be there to show off the capabilities of an organisation, so that they gain a bit of prestige, or more funding, or both!

 

One of the skills of a successful interpreter is being able to correctly read those purposes and yet not overdo it when it comes to actually interpreting. We might be wrong, after all. However expert our preparation, it has to be subject to our skill in reading the room and understanding in real-time what is really going on.

 

It’s all about context

Interpreting researchers never get bored of letting people know that meaning is dependent on context. The chair saying, “I think it’s time we moved on” means something entirely different if someone is asking a rambling question than it does if everyone is excitedly engaging with the speaker. And those two meanings can and should lead to the interpreter saying entirely different things.

 

Among other business duties, today is the day I will really dig into all that and take an initial view of what the conference is actually for and what will put a smile on the faces of those there.