Integrity Languages


You don’t need to cancel your event due to coronavirus

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 26, 2020

Around the world, many events are now at risk due to the outbreak of COVID-19, also called coronavirus. Conference after conference is coming under threat. But, despite all the difficulties, you don’t need to cancel your conference.

While in-person meetings and events will always be the ideal, it helps to have a backup in place in case the worst happens. In the case of conferences, I would like to make a few simple recommendations:

  • As soon as possible, contact a virtual meeting company.

This is especially important if your conference was going to be multilingual. Companies such as KUDO or Linguali (neither are paying me to mention them) enable you to provide complex video and audio feeds to everyone who was going to be at the conference. Better yet, they allow you to still run a multilingual event by providing an excellent platform for interpreters too.

  • Talk to sponsors and those who have bought stands about alternatives

No matter what your contracts say, you will keep better relationships with key supporters if you get them in the loop early. If you move the event into the virtual space, offer sponsors the chance to have their logos on slides and to have their name mentioned. Those who have bought stands might be interested in sponsoring talks.

  • Be prepared to jiggle the schedule

We all know that a virtual event is no replacement for sharing the same room and it should be no surprise either that attention drops much more quickly during virtual presentations than it does when we have a speaker right in front of us. This means that switching to virtual for a one-off will also inevitably mean shortening speeches, trimming sessions and generally shifting the whole schedule around. None of this will be easy but it still provides a better experience than cancelling the whole thing.

What now?

In short, when thinking through your options, don’t write off moving the event online. Not only does it mean that your guests still get the best content, it can give you great ideas for how to use modern virtual meeting technologies in your next, hopefully virus-free, edition.

And, as ever, if you would like to schedule a free, 20-minute advice call, drop me an email.

Reassessing Speech Translation

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 24, 2020

Back in October, I wrote a blog post in which I admitted that I had jumped the gun in my assessment of remote interpreting. Now, after writing a book on speech translation and pointing out the flaws in a recent BBC article on the subject, it is time for me to go through the same process for speech translation. And the results are … slightly more complex.

Two Worlds

In my book, Interpreters vs Machines, I deliberately concentrated on the basic operating principles of all speech translation solutions and on the research that was available at the time. After that, I deliberately chose to focus on the claims of commercial speech translation solutions, since they were getting the most attention by the media and by professional interpreters. It turns out that my decision was actually pretty sound.

Academic research on speech translation is continuing quietly and is making steps to deal with one or two of the major issues I discussed in the book, especially the losses that happen when you turn speech into text, run it through machine translation and then turn the results into speech again. Apart from the Google Translatotron, which is yet to be subject to proper public assessment, there is an upcoming conference that seems to be pushing the idea of going directly from speech to speech.

The commercial world, however, continues to produce some quite remarkable claims. Take this one from a recent video by Waverly Labs:

Doing our research, we studied the tools used by professional interpreters, by taking inspiration and going one step further, we gave ambassador the capability to deliver natural, professional grade translation.

While we could quibble about the meanings of the terms here, the phrase “natural, professional grade translation” is a pretty bold claim. Either it means that they are claiming to have matched the quality of professional interpreters, which their own CEO admitted they haven’t or they are claiming their system is good enough to be used by professionals. In the latter case, one might ask whether those professionals should be persuaded to switch from using professional human interpreters.

In either case, it is clear that the purveyors of commercial speech translation are making incredibly bold claims without citing any empirical evidence. How long it will be before we have a repeat of the embarrassing Tencent incident or even the Microsoft “human parity” blunder is anyone’s guess.

Language Access

But, despite questionable marketing practices, speech translation does have a place. Yet again, it helps to turn to the always thought-provoking, Sarah Hickey, of Nimdzi Insights and now Troublesome Terps. At the #Conf1nt100 conference in Geneva, she pointed out that speech translation is finding niches in places where professionals wouldn’t be used anyway.

If you run a library, speech translation can help you achieve basic communication with patrons from other countries; in emergency situations, it can allow for simple triage until a human can be found, and of course, speech translation is great for tourists and frequent business travellers.

In short, speech translation is providing language access and doing it in places where that access might not have been previously available. That can only be good news.

What does all this mean for human interpreters? You’ll have to buy my book to discover that but I will say that we need to look beyond the unfortunately flawed coverage and crazy claims of speech translation to spend more time thinking through what researchers are managing to achieve. Basically, for now at least, ignore the marketing waffle and trust the engineers.

Want to know more?

As ever, if you are looking for advice as to how to get the best out of interpreting in your business, looking to build an interpreting team for your next event, or if you are looking for a conference interpreter in the UK working between French and English, drop me an email.

“Can computer translators ever beat speaking in a foreign tongue?” – This BBC article can’t tell us

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 21, 2020

Dear BBC,

I know how much you pride yourself on journalistic integrity and I know how keen you are to show your contribution to society, given current debates over the license fee. I also know how hard your staff work. It’s because I know all these things that I have to regretfully point out that your recent piece “Can Computer Translators Ever Beat Speaking in a Foreign Tongue?” contains several serious flaws and is therefore incoherent and misleading.

Translation and Interpreting are different professions

Unlike The Guardian, you often use the words “translator” and “interpreter” interchangeably in your reporting. While this is passable in articles on what someone “spoke through a translator”, it’s really not acceptable when talking about the achievements of computers in the two very different professions.

Conflating translation and interpreting is rather like conflating neurology and urology. No-one would ask a urologist to diagnose a brain tumour. Similarly, it’s not a good idea to ask a literary translator to interpret at a sales meeting.

The difference between translation and interpeting is simple (and has been explained here before). Interpreters work in the moment, at events, meetings or conferences. Translators work on texts after they are written.

Computer Aided Translation tools don’t fit in your ear

That flaw is the source of the greatest proportion of inaccuracies in the article. For example, it speaks about Computer Aided Translation tools as if they can do everything from detecting repetitions to providing in-ear “translation”.

That is simply false. CAT tools are software packages used by translators. Among other functions, they store previously translated sentences and glossaries of terminology. The latest tools include all sorts of features, from the ability to handle a wide range of file formats to integration with machine translation services. This makes them indispensable for many translators.

CAT tools do not and cannot provide in-ear interpreting. That is the sole preserve of in-ear speech translation gadgets. Yes, I know the term “speech translation” is rather confusing but I spent a year writing a book that explains why those gadgets don’t really deserve the title “machine interpreting” yet.

Speech Translation and Credibility

Aside from that error, it is surprising that Andrew Ochoa of Waverly Labs was approached for quotes on the capabilities of speech translation.

You may not be aware but Waverly Labs have made claims that have turned out to be less impressive in the real world. Their first product, the Pilot Translating Earpiece was claimed to have taken us to “life untethered, free of language barriers ” in its glitzy marketing video. At the same time, their own Chief Engineer wrote that the underlying technology was at a place where “two conversation partners can understand reasonably well what each one is saying“.

With their new product, The Ambassador, they claim to offer “professional grade translation“. When I approached them for the data behind their claim, such data was not forthcoming. At the time of writing this, they still have not produced any publicy available data against which to test their claim.

Indeed, that claim has to be questioned since, in your article, Mr Ochoa is quoted as saying “When it comes to expressing emotion and intonation, we need sentiment analysis, which is not there yet but may well be in ten years time”. Either his company has already matched the quality of professional human interpreters, who take such tasks in their stride, or it hasn’t. Which is it?

Suffice to say, I would argue that we should be sceptical of their claim and subsequent predictions. His idea that we just need to add in sentiment analysis ignores the fact that research done since the early 1990s shows that interpreters explain, co-ordinate who can talk, summarise, change language register, reformulate, adjust pronoun use and clarify. And that’s just the tip of the icebergI would invite Mr Ochoa and his company to spend more time learning what interpreters do.

What actually is the question?

The final flaw in the article is its imprecision. The title of the article asks “can computer translators ever beat speaking in a foreign tongue?” The answer to that will be “no” for as long as computer translation or interpreting doesn’t give people the same access to the culture, politeness, and expectations that we gain when putting in the effort to learn a language.

If you had asked “will computers ever replace human translators?”, the answer would depend on the skill, field, and expertise of the human translator and what the translation will be used for.

If you had asked “will computers ever interpret better than professional human interpreters?”, the answer would depend on how we understand what interpreters do and whether we believe computers can ever gain the situational, social and cultural awareness that should be the stock in trade of any professional human interpreter.

Three very different questions would have led to three very different answers and three fascinating articles. It is just a pity that your article didn’t manage to cover any other these topics fairly, leading to confusing and misleading results.

Fixing the Issue

Apart from taking the example of The Guardian and making sure that interpreting and translation are no longer conflated, I would like to ask that you review the sources you approach for such articles.

For quotes on machine translation, it’s worth going to universities like Dublin City University (Prof Andy Way and his team are superb). For quotes on interpreting or translation, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting is an excellent UK source. For a realistic appraisal of speech translation technology, go to the team behind the IWSLT2020 conference.

I am happy to suggest sources for future articles myself, especially as I had to hunt them down for my recent book. Feel free to drop me an email at and I will either put you in touch with an expert (with their permission) or give you a quote myself.

It’s worth getting this stuff right. People’s jobs and future are at risk.

Being the First Glaswegian to English Interpreter: Ten Years on

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 20, 2020

Ten years ago this week, I was recovering from the strangest, craziest week of my life so far. My visits to a bingo hall, a pub, a live TV studio and a radio studio would give me some incredible stories to tell. They would also see me feature on national news, several national newspapers, live TV and radio stations in the UK and Canada. This is how that week changed me and affected my interpreting

The Story so Far

It all began with the BBC coverage of a company called Today Translations, who were looking for a Glaswegian to English interpreter. While I grew up in Lanarkshire, about 15 miles from Glasgow, my Glaswegian was still strong enough to interpret. Since it was early in my career, I gave it a try and sent off my then-standard CV and covering letter. For months, nothing happened.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, I heard that I had been chosen for the job. That was good enough, since I really needed paid work, but what would happen next simply blew me away.

A Journalist, a Bingo Hall and a Pub

In an effort to get as much publicity from the story as possible, Today Translations arranged with a freelance journalist to come to interview me. We met in Glasgow and I did some test interpreting with two old ladies we met in a bingo hall, before retiring with him to a local pub for an informal interview.

That was odd enough but more was to come.

After several national newspapers picked up the story, suddenly TV and radio stations were interested. First, STV (a national TV station) sent a cameraman and crew to the church that allowed me to use some space for an office. They interviewed me as part of a short item for the six o’clock news. Next, I was invited to go on a live show from the same company, called The Hour. So I headed to the studio and my wife grabbed a later train to meet me there.

Just after I left makeup and before my wife had even arrived, I got another call, this time from the BBC. As soon as my slot was recorded, my wife and I went for a quick dinner and then hopped over to the local BBC studios for me to record a radio spot.

That sounds more glamourous than it was. I was on my own in a tiny studio, patched into the rather hostile host in Manchester. The spot was eventually broadcast at about 4am, in between an item on dead grey squirrels and a cat with its head stuck in a tin can.

A couple of days later, I ended up doing a radio interview from home, this time for CBC Radio Canada. That was probably the lightest and most fun recording.

Sadly, only the newspaper coverage has survived online, leaving me with nothing but memories of tie mics that were bolted to the ground and producers who seemed to be able to appear from nowhere and disappear as quickly.

The Follow-Up

Today, I am still kicking myself that, with all that coverage, I didn’t really have a business website or really much of an online presence that could have benefitted. As of today, I have received precisely no paid jobs for doing Glaswegian and I haven’t heard from Today Translations for at least 8 years.

Today Translations, if you’re there and you still exist, I’d be happy to work for you again.

So, by some measures, nothing came of all that coverage, apart from the chance to tell the story at an ITI conference. And that is sad.

On the other hand, I can say for sure that my week in the limelight gave me a much needed lesson in dealing with the media and especially in the strange art of crafting sound bites that make it into newspapers.

That has served as the basis for interpreting at conferences covered by the press, drafting open letters for my national association to send to press and government, writing articles for magazines aimed at my clients and generally having a better understanding of the weird world of journalism.

Would I do it again?

I would absolutely do it again any time and I am very open to giving interview on interpreting, including the prospects for speech translation gadgets taking our jobs. Only this time, I would be ready to make the most of any coverage that might come.

The Real Difference Between Interpreting and Translation

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 11, 2020

Yesterday, the world was alight with praise for Sharon Choi, the interpreter of Oscar winner, Bong Joon Ho. And there is no doubt that she deserved it.

A few journalists however, through habit or lack of knowledge, called her a “translator”, which annoyed a good few interpreters. If your business is to make an impact with a wider audience, it really helps to know which service you need when. Sadly, the typical advice you get doesn’t always help.

Mostly, people tend to say that translators work with written language and interpreters work with spoken language. This is kind of true but discriminates unfairly against sign language interpreting and leaves some important gaps.

The Usual Definition Doesn’t Work

For example, if you are offering a chat system for customer service and you want to be able to deal with live queries from all your customers, no matter which language they speak, you might think you will need translators. Actually, some companies have found that, if short chats need to be turned into another language, interpreters can give better results than translators, since they are used to making decisions at high speed.

Similarly, you might think that creating the script for dubbing a film in another language would be a job for an interpreter, as it involves spoken language. Actually, it’s really a job for specialist translators, since both the original and translated scripts are written texts.

There’s a better way

Here’s a simpler and more accurate way to determine if you need a translator or interpreter:

Translators work on texts;

Interpreters work at events or meetings.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a film script, a contract or a website, texts are the preserve of translators. They tend to do their work after something has been written down and outside of the specific situation the text will be used for.

Interpreters do their work in front of an audience, while the situation is taking place. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Oscar acceptance speech, a negotiation or a meeting with the manager. It’s even interpreting if the interpreter isn’t physically there. If you are delivering a webinar or remote training or having a Zoom call with a supplier or client, if the meeting or event is still going on while the person is working, they are almost certainly an interpreter.

Just ask one question

This means that you just need to ask a single question:

Will the person be doing their work at the same time as I am on this or will their work come after mine?

If you need someone to turn your speech into British Sign Language or Swahili or French while you are speaking, you need interpreters. If it has been neatly typed up and you then need someone to turn that transcript into British Sign Language or Swahili or French, you need a translator.

If you need someone to turn English into French or German or Dutch during a meeting with a client or a conference on your industry, you need an interpreter. If you need someone to turn the English brochures and advertising materials into French or German or Dutch, you need a translator.

Just the beginning

Of course, knowing the difference between interpreting and translation is just the beginning. You still need to know whether to use an agency or hire a consultant and you will still need help to get the right team.

There are lots of useful guides available, like this quick guide. You can also drop me an email for help.

If you’d like to go deeper into the nitty-gritty of the difference between the two, watch out for an upcoming post on my research blog.

Diversity and the Event Experience

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 14, 2020

People don’t want to attend events any more. They want a unique experience.

Go to any conference or expo on the events sector and you will hear that refrain time and time again. You are also likely to hear strong calls for more diversity in the sector and for events organisers to build events that appeal to more than a small number of attendees. But how do these two go together?

It’s a sad fact that many experiential events don’t take into account the needs of the whole audience, making assumptions about access, language, and ability to deal with different stimuli.

A small step up from one part of the exhibition hall to another can render it entirely inaccessible for people in wheelchairs. A lack of provision of quiet spaces or the presence of continual loud noise and bright lights can be a nightmare for those with autism. Decisions to ignore the needs of speakers of other languages drastically reduces the audience and paints the client as being insular.

But it doesn’t have to be like this

Event designers don’t have to be stuck in the same old mindsets. As well as thinking about how cool something will look and the journeys of the “typical delegate”, it’s vital to spend time thinking through access issues. Can everyone access every part of the show, no matter their access requirements and no matter their language?

Taking time to walk around the show floor, either virtually or physically, asking critical questions can lead to small changes that make a big difference. Ask whether deaf attendees will be able to take as much from the show as those who aren’t deaf. Are people free to choose their own routes and take their time or do you need to add flexibility? If I don’t speak English, is it still worth my while attending?

Audiences are diverse

Perhaps a few years ago, we could take it for granted that we could predict the demographics and needs of an audience of accountants or sales people or computer scientists. We might have been able to guess in advance whether we need to provide nursing spaces or quiet zones or food for those with specific dietary requirements.

Today, nothing can be taken for granted. People from all different backgrounds can be found in all professions, and rightly so. If we’re expecting that people will phone in advance to tell us that we wil have five guests in wheelchairs or three people who don’t speak English, we might be in for a shock.

Diversity isn’t just a talking point; it’s a societal fact and it means rethinking how we design and plan events. Instead of expecting people to tell them their needs, event designers need to think about providing certain things, such as step-free access and a variety of foods suitable for different dietary requirements, as standard and proactively asking questions about others, such as language needs.

And the team should be diverse too

Since the audience will be diverse, it makes sense for event organising teams to reflect this diversity in their makeup. Having a single person in charge of the speaking programme or leaving a single designer to build an event on their own is now risky. At the very least, those creating and running events need to find ways to listen to those taking part in events and in experts in a variety of fields.

As a simple example, when planning international events, it really does pay to talk with a consultant interpreter as early as possible so they can help you ensure that the experience works for everyone. More than one event has flopped because a large part of the audience felt left out as a speaker rambled on in a language they didn’t really understand or with an accent they couldn’t follow.

While no-one will pretend it is easy to design events that work for today’s diverse audiences, the reputation of your clients and your company now depends on the event experience working for everyone there. Can you afford to get it wrong?

Argh! I need an interpreter

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: December 3, 2019

If you’re snowed under and you need to get an interpreter booked for your next event or the CEO’s big meeting, read this first. It’ll save you time and money and make your life much easier.

If you have two people meeting together who don’t speak the same language, you’ll get the best results from hiring a professional, human interpreter.

No, you don’t need a translator. They’re for written work.

No, you don’t need to phone an agency. You can hire directly.

Here’s how to do it the easy way.

First, download this interpreting brief and fill it in. It’ll open in a new tab automatically.

Second, send if off to bookings[at] with the best method to contact you.

Third, sit back and relax while an expert consultant interpreter takes care of everything for you. There might be a few additional questions but you can be sure that the very best interpreter will be there, right when you need them.

Now, that’s done, you can grab a cuppa. Job done.

When Bilingual isn’t Enough

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 26, 2019

It was a simple enough decision. A large engineering company I know of decided that, in advance of its sales meeting with a big buyer, they would translate the questionnaire he sent them. Surely, the best people to translate it would be their in-house French-speakers. On the face of it, it seems like a reasonable decision but the consequences of that decision say a lot about the risks businesses face when they expand abroad.

We all do it. We have a tweet we need to read or a document we need to get the gist of, so we throw it at Google Translate or some similar service. If we are lucky enough to know someone who speaks that language, we might ask them to give us a hand.

Often, that’s enough. Few people really need a professional Spanish translation of the latest perfume recommendation from their favourite Instagram influencer or a full explanation of that long rant from a Dutch person on Facebook. When all you need is the gist and nothing of great importance hinges on the result, machine translation is great.

Using Bilingual Staff

Sometimes, however, things are a bit more important than that. Maybe you really do need to know how your company was talked about in that article or, like the engineering company I mention at the top, you need to fill in a questionnaire or respond to a letter written in another language.

At such times, businesses will often turn to their own bilingual staff. Once again, that will sometimes work. Your own staff might be fantastic at shooting off a letter explaining your prices or giving you a fuller explanation of how your company was covered in a recent Cantonese magazine or reviewed on a Portuguese web page.

But sometimes even that isn’t enough.

When Being Bilingual isn’t Enough

For the engineering company I mentioned earlier, what went wrong was that their staff knew their jobs perfectly but missed some nuances in the questionnaire. That meant that the company’s responses made it look like they didn’t give a hoot about the quality of their products.

That would only come to light after a pretty tough discussion in the middle of a negotiation and a little interpreting fix I have written about elsewhere. In that particular case, a couple of little slips at the wrong moment nearly cost the company millions of pounds in lost sales.

Small decisions can have big consequences.

A good rule of thumb is to call in a language professional whenever getting it wrong could have massive consequences.

If your website is going to appear in another language, hiring a professional website translator or professioanl bilingual copywriter instead of asking someone in-house to do it will be the difference between a website that increases sales and one that ends up as another story of translation gone wrong.

If you are heading to a business negotiation or key conference, hiring a professional interpreter – rather than bringing along an untrained bilingual – will often be the difference between winning a new client and having to deal with confusion.

Knowing the Difference

It’s certainly not true that businesses need to hire professional translators and interpreters every time there is some kind of linguistic difference. And it certainly is true that having multilingual, multicultural staff in your company will be of great benefit. It’s also true that sometimes you really need a professional translator or interpreter.

Most people know instinctively the difference between illnesses that you can self-diagnose and self-treat and those where you really need to see a doctor. We also know that, if we delay going to the doctor too long, it can cause real problems for us down the line.

The same is true when it comes to languages. Sometimes, you need Google Translate, sometimes you need a bilingual member of staff and when it really matters most, you really need professional translators and interpreters.

If you would like help understanding exactly when and how to get te best out of professional translators and interpreters in your business, drop me an email to arrange a free, no obligation Zoom call.

Interpreting Makes a Difference

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 14, 2019

For the company desperate to break into a new market, interpreting makes a difference.

For the events manager who needs this international conference to blow the buyer away, interpreting makes a difference.

For the tourist far from home, struggling in a hospital with suspected appendicitis, interpreting makes a difference.

For the deaf person with a job interview with a company who has never before employed a deaf person and for the hiring manager who really wants this interview to be the one, interpreting makes a difference.

For the scared witness in a foreign court and the frightened defendant who has difficulty understanding the charges against them, interpreting makes a difference.

For the presenter nervously adjusting their tie before their presentation at the most important international event of their career, interpreting makes a difference.

From road accidents, to high-level diplomacy; from maternity wards to matinee shows, interpreting makes a difference.

It’s time the world heard those stories.

If your company or organisation has benefitted from the difference interpreters make, please include a line in your reports or news updates or website or blog to tell the world that. If it’s appropriate, for instance, if they helped you win a big contract or dazzle buyers at a conference, think about asking them if you can name them publicly.

If you are a leader of a translation or interpreting association, please consider asking your members for their anonymised stories of the difference interpreting and translation has made to their clients and find creative ways to share them.

If you are an interpreter or translator, think of sharing your stories online (there is the #ImadeaDifference hashtag on twitter and Facebook) and, more importantly in person. Go out to meetings where you will be the only interpreter or translator and meet people, learning what matters to them and how translation and interpreting can change their lives for the better.

Interpreting (and translation) make a difference. Let’s commit to helping the whole world know that.

The launch video of the #ImadeaDifference campaign

Thinking Globally: the Scottish International Week Conference

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 30, 2019

Just one of three! marvellous panels

Imagine sitting in the plush surroundings of a leading national bank and getting to listen to the collected wisdom of business leaders from several sectors as they describe how to succeed internationally. Yesterday, I had the privilege of doing just that, when I attended the Scottish International Week conference in the Bank of Scotland building on The Mound in Edinburgh. It was an event that demonstrated the power of Scottish business while explaining just what it takes to succeed in a global economy.

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