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Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Problem with Remote Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 20, 2018

[note from the writer]It’s quite rare these days for me to write a post that is not explicitly aimed at potential clients. This one is an exception, although there are lots of things for clients to chew over. All opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.

By the time you read this, the interpreting industry will have had some time to digest the latest move from the leading remote interpreting platforms. We have had product releases and demos, we have had assurances and articles telling us that we had all better sign up now! Now! No, right now! Why haven’t you signed up to be assimilated yet!? Resistance is futile!

And now, in the latest development, which means not much to anyone who isn’t an interpreter, we have the creation of the Interpreting Technologies Alliance (ITA). According to its own website and this press release via Common Sense Advisory, ITA represents a decision by the major Interpreting Delivery Platform providers (that remote interpreting companies to you and me) to work together on “to raise the visibility and credibility of emerging solutions such as remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) and amplify the presence of interpreting technology in the business community.” That would be marketing and PR then.

There is also a kind of entente agreed between the companies. Here’s another quote from the CSA PR piece:

The six companies agreed to set aside some of the micro differences between their products and interests and instead focus on the common good of pooling resources to develop new market segments. Their main activities will be to jointly engage the private sector and showcase interpreting use cases at industry events and through trade and social media. They also plan a series of joint campaigns to standardize terminology, increase professionalism, educate the market, and raise the capacity of language professionals to meet the needs of the private sector.

On the one hand, it is good to see companies setting aside any rivalries for the greater good but the whole thing opens a few important questions.

First off, why are only technology providers at the table? If the idea is to professionalise the way remote interpreting is delivered (good idea!) and to showcase its uses (again, good idea!) wouldn’t it be good to, you know have some interpreters involved who aren’t on the payroll of any of the big platforms? Or even to invite professionals associations to engage?

The second big question is what exactly is meant by “raise the capacity of language professionals to meet the needs of the private sector”. Since, to quote CSA again remote interpreting has “suffered from a mismatch between product solutions and actual market demand” how do we know that they know any better than currently active interpreters about “meeting the needs of the private sector?” And hold on, aren’t interpreters already doing that and educating each other about that?

The point is that the founding of ITA and its press release so far have simply underlined the longest-standing problem with remote interpreting – it has always been good about generating publicity but its engagement with the supply side, the interpreters, has been patchy. Some companies have done well enough, others have completely missed the boat.

Despite years of development, no-one can say for sure whether remote interpreting is good or bad for quality, good or bad for interpreter physical health, good or bad for interpreter mental health and good or bad for interpreting revenues. That is the main and maybe even the sole message of AIIC’s new position on remote interpreting. We already have burnout issues. Psychologists know that social isolation is a contributing factor to poor mental health outcomes. Might remote interpreting make things even worse? The answer is: we don’t know.

Research on interpreting since the 1990s has shown that in-person interpreted situations across all forms of interpreting are dynamic social environments where interpreters react in real-time to what is said and done. Might remote interpreting break that link and reduce real quality and outcomes? We don’t know.

With unanswered questions like those on the one side and the attempts at shiny PR image-making from remote interpreting tech providers on the other, it is no surprise that many interpreters are sceptical about remote, or at least sceptical about the future of remote interpreting promoted by its most ardent fans.

That’s why, if you get the more astute remote interpreting promoters in a corner and ask them quietly what their biggest challenge is right now, they will tell you that it is still very hard to get experienced, excellent interpreters to sign up. Yes, you get some cheery early adopters. Yes, you can do nice demos. But still, the biggest tension in remote interpreting is on the supply side, not the demand side.

The biggest problem with remote interpreting is interpreters. The tech can be as wonderful as you like. You can even do as much PR and marketing as you like but if you can’t get enough expert interpreters onside, it won’t work. And right now, many experienced expert interpreters are sitting on the fence about remote interpreting, if not swearing off it altogether, at least for settings where we currently work in person. Sadly, the creation of ITA and some of the rather unfortunate language around it has not made things any better.

For remote interpreting clients, the biggest danger will be that the supplier can’t find the high quality interpreter that they need. For remote interpreting platform providers, there will always be a tension between wanting to become a platform that supplies everything, including the interpreters (and thereby appearing like just another agency to interpreters and alienating those who want to get their own clients) and being the platform interpreters choose to use themselves (and thereby making it harder to sell to clients directly).

If the focus of ITA is really driving up standards in remote interpreting and ensuring that the interpreting provided is of high quality, the priority has to be knowledge and real partnership, above fancy stands at tradeshows. Invite interpreting associations to send a “lay member” or three to your board. Fund research that generates real, empirically validated data on the things that matter about remote interpreting. Work with mental health experts on preparing interpreters for the shift you see coming.

Please, for goodness sake, do something more than PR and marketing. The profession deserves much, much more than that!

 

The Day I Made Some Founders Sad

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 15, 2018

It all started so well. Two super nice and super enthusiastic founders asked if they could Skype call me to get my opinion on their latest project. As someone who has been known to gripe about people starting companies in the interpreting world without actually having a clue, I was pleasantly surprised and was happy to arrange a time to suit. And then, it all changed.

 

We got the idea from travelling around the world together.

We went to lots of countries where we didn’t know the language and thought “hey, what if you could instantly get an interpreter on your phone at the touch of a button? Then you could chat to literally anyone and get medicine and find directions and lots of stuff like that.”

So, our idea, and you might need to take a minute to take it in, is to build an app where people can get right to an interpreter in any language. It’ll be amazing for travellers and would help interpreters as we are sure there would be lots of work for them. (Cue winning smile). So, what do you think, as an industry expert?

 

Those who know interpreting would have seen hundreds of similar ideas. Very few have any real profile left. In the next twenty minutes or so, I would explain to those nodding start-up founders how the interpreting market works and the reason why so many companies trying to do the same thing have failed.

 

Here it is in a nutshell:

  • The interpreters who are offering excellent interpreting are becoming good businesspeople in their own right. Knowing the true value of their skills has led to them wanting more control over their work. This desire is pushing them to build their own client list consisting of good direct clients and/or established agencies who know the industry well and know how to work with interpreters.
  • This change is prompting a trickle-down effect, where younger and less confident interpreters are beginning to follow the same logic. This is leading in many places to a shortage of qualified/certified/experienced interpreters who are willing and interested in joining platforms for bulk selling their work.
  • There are still many people who are interested in such platforms but they will tend not to have any credentials or serious training. They might be good; they might be poor. The likelihood is that they have never been tested so you can’t know either way.
  • Machine interpreting is almost good enough to take away the need for human interpreters to do the phrasebook “is this the train for Salzburg?” “I have a sore throat” stuff anyway. Basically, if the phrase used to be in those small books you would buy from the airport newsagents before your flight, Google Translate has it sorted.
  • Put this together and you have a perfect storm of massive supply issues and dwindling demand for “on-demand instant human interpreting” for the needs of your typical tourist.

 

By about three-quarters of the way through the call, the smiles had become noticeably more fixed. I really did like these founders. They asked intelligent questions and seemed truly interested in what I had to say.

 

I just wish that they hadn’t chosen the world’s most oversaturated idea for their big business.

 

Before you think that this post is about arrogant self-congratulation, it actually made me realise my own business frailties. At the beginning of my career, I had my sights set on one market and one market alone. I realised that I might not crack it right away so in the meantime, I sold my service through precisely the kind of bulk selling platforms that most green founders think will work for interpreting by app.

 

It’s hard to learn that your marketing and entire business model is flawed. It’s even harder to pick up the pieces and start again. For me, it took a burnout episode and a PhD for the clouds to break. Even now, I am still finessing how I work and how I market.

 

The real lesson of this story is not that start-up founders in interpreting are likely to fail badly unless they ask interpreters first. It isn’t even that the days of finding excellent interpreters on bulk selling platforms of one kind or another are ending. It’s that we all need help and honest feedback, even though it might make us sad. Being sad today is much more beneficial than losing your house tomorrow.

What Does a Consultant Interpreter Actually Do?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 14, 2018

For most businesses who don’t have an HQ in Brussels, Paris or some other city where conference interpreting is ubiquitous, the phrase “consultant interpreter” will seem entirely foreign. So what is one and what can they do for you?

To answer that question, we need to think about how interpreters are traditionally hired. For many companies, hiring an interpreter means sending an email to an interpreting agency with a brief for the event, sending over documents and then waiting for the interpreters to turn up on the day.

There is not a lot obviously wrong with that model and, as I mention in my free Buying Interpreting Step-by-Step course, there are times when going to an interpreting agency is exactly what you need to do.

Yet, there comes a time in many businesses where running international events becomes a regular feature of your work. There might also be occasions where the event is so special or so valuable that you want greater partnership than the traditional agency model can easily provide.

This is where consultant interpreters come in. As both a practising interpreter in their own right and someone who knows how to build specialist interpreting teams, they know how to match your exact needs with interpreters on the market. They will know who is excellent for sales events and who is better in board meetings. Why? Because they will tend to have worked alongside the people they recommend and will have first-hand experience of their strengths and weaknesses.

As well as building you a custom interpreting team, a good consultant interpreter will also have relationships with suppliers of interpreting equipment. That relationship alone could save you hours of frustration!

Lastly, here’s something that few people know. Consultant interpreters really are consultants too. If you have a question about the best order to speeches to keep people awake or the right interpreting equipment or even the best way to address guests from different countries, ask your consultant interpreter. They will have the knowledge and experience to either answer those questions themselves or find you the right person to answer them.

 

Now that you have seen what a consultant interpreter can do, isn’t it time you chatted with one? Drop me an email using the contact form for a free Skype chat to see how working with a consultant interpreter could super-charge your business.