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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]integritylanguages.co.uk 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.

Continue reading

Your Language Strategy is Your Growth Strategy

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 28, 2019

Go to export events and you will hear speakers talking about emerging markets, building an international presence, and winning clients abroad but we often neglect to mention one issue: not everyone in business speaks English. Even if they do, carrying out business in English only is a risky decision.

The Risks of English Only

Consider this case: you send your best sales person off to France to sell some medical aids. They come back beaming, with the news that the client talked about ankles that were swelling. They are excited to hear that there is such a great market for your products.

Except, they’re wrong. In French when someone has “les chevilles qui enflent”, it actually means that they have a big ego. Far from your sales person finding an exciting new market, they have discovered an audience that were really not happy with how they presented themselves.

Misunderstandings, cultural miscues, and loss of important nuances all happen when we expect people to do business in our language, rather than doing what it takes to allow everyone to do business in the language in which they are most comfortable. It’s little wonder that a famous report from the House of Lords in the UK found that British businesses lose out on £50billion per year due to a lack of language skills.

Building a Language Strategy

Thinking strategically is familiar territory for any business. Work out where you are, work out where you want to go, plot the course to get there and set sail.

The same process that is used around the world to decide on sales, product distribution channels, marketing, and business development can and should be applied to languages.

What are your strategic markets?

What kind of investment are you willing to make to get them?

How hands-on do you want to be with your content in that language?

Do you prefer brand consistency or would you prefer content to be rewritten for the new audience?

Will you be visiting in person or selling from afar?

Knowing all that, which language tactics do you need to use? Translation? Copywriting? Interpreting?

Work with Experts Early

Few business leaders would pull in a consultant two weeks before they started a new business venture. Few managers would hire a new sales team on the day they needed all the sales to be concluded.

The same goes for language strategy. Sure, hiring translators, interpreters and writers late might work once or twice but it is a recipe for a headache.

It’s much better to get them on board early, so they can work alongside you to shape the strategy as well as the final product. A good consultant interpreter will be able to tell you when you really don’t need interpreters and when they will be invaluable. An honest translator will often be able to drastically reduce the amount of content that needs to be translated, while delivering incredible Return on Investment on the rest.

The earlier we involve experts in language, the better our language strategy will be.

If your business is looking at rolling out a language strategy to reach new markets, drop me an email for a free call.

Reassessing Remote Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 25, 2019

“Remote interpreting is here and it works.”

Those weren’t the words of the owner of a video remote interpreting business but of Sarah Hickey, Chief Interpreting Researcher at Nimdzi Insights, when she spoke during the town hall session of the Conf1nt100 conference in Geneva.

And she’s right. Remote interpreting, without or without video, with or without studios, with or without safeguards, is used all over the world, from emergency medicine to high-level webinars. And yes, it does work.

Not long ago, I said that I would not consult on remote interpreting, due to some of the severe issues found with that kind of work. At that point, I saw the picture in much simpler terms than I do now.

As the ITI Position Paper on Remote Interpreting shows, those issues haven’t gone away. Even the most recent research (check the details in the footnotes) shows problems with interpreters feeling disconnected from the event, with them being unable to interrupt when they need to and with possible physical and mental health issues.

Something else covered in that same paper, however, is that remote interpreting fills important gaps. When it is too dangerous to have an interpreter there in person, when you can’t afford to wait for the interpreter to arrive, when there are no good interpreters with those languages locally, when the meeting is happening entirely online anyway, remote interpreting has a place.

Remote interpreting has a place. That’s my new thinking in a nutshell.

Personally, due to my own personal circumstances, it’s not a service I will be offering myself but, in the right contexts, I would now offer consulting on it. Most likely, that would involve working closely with people like Ewandro Magalhaes and Prof Barry Olsen, who have dedicated large parts of their career to being specialists in remote interpreting.

Yes, we still need to do more about the negative effects of remote but it turns out that there are many interpreters who offer remote interpreting as an additional service, not as their entire careers. Yes, we still need good standards for remote, but it turns out that the good providers care about that stuff already.

So I was wrong. I painted too bleak a picture and missed crucial details. That’s why I am learning to slow down, ask more questions, listen harder and accept it when people I respect point out that I have tripped up.

That’s how we learn.

In the People Business

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 23, 2019

“Whatever business you’re in, you’re in the people business.”

It’s not exactly the most original of business coach phrases but it just might be the most useful.

At a time when we adopt technical solutions to automate accounting and newsletter delivery and market segmentation, is it possible that we could try to automate the very processes and relationships that make business human?

Sure, it might be fashionable to have chatbots run your customer service channels but they’re probably making your business seem stale and robotic. Yes, having one of those phone menu things on your customer services phine line seems like a time saver but it doesn’t exactly make your customers love you.

We all know how hard that Google and Tencent and Waverly Labs are pushing their speech translatiion devices but if we’re happy for our high risk, face-to-face communication to be mediated by technology, aren’t we just admitting that we don’t value the person we’re speaking to?

Some tasks are repetitive and procedural and can be automated with no client or customer ever noticing the difference. But when it comes to meeting face-to-face and showing that you care and you want to understand the key issues your clients are dealing with, there’s no app in the world that can replace being personally present and working with real-life humans.

Since we’re all in the people business, we need to keep people at the front of our work. When you next meet someone face-to-face, silence the smartphones, kill the apps and meet: person to person.

Can interpreters beat the bots?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 26, 2019

This is just a short post to share some exciting news. After around 18 months of writing (with some breaks), so many trips to the National Library of Scotland that I have a favourite seat in the Reading Room, and a few trips to try out some ideas in public, preorders for my new book: Interpreters vs Machines: Can Interpreters Survive in an AI-dominated World? are now open. (Click the title to go to the preorder page.)

This book deals with the biggest question in interpreting right now: do human interpreters stand a chance of professional survival, faced with the gathered might of the world’s biggest tech companies? It also deals with the second biggest question: which strategy offers our best hope?

After reading the research, taking an honest look at our profession and really thinking through what is actually going on right now, I have found some uncomfortable answers.

The answers are uncomfortable for everyone.

The answers are uncomfortable for interpreters as they force us to face up to some of the most difficult issues in our profession and practice. Failure to take seriously the challenges of machine interpreting leads inexorably to being replaced.

The answers are uncomfortable for makers of machine interpreting devices and apps as they force them to face up to the weaknesses in their understanding of interpreting. Failure to take seriously the need to actually understand what interpreters do will consign their best work to the world of geeky gadgets that never live up to their promise.

The answers are uncomfortable for the general public, even if they never think of buying a machine translation device, as they force us to face up to what it really means to live in a society where information is currency and where the technology we use to communicate might just control what we can and can’t say and how we say it.

This isn’t just a book about interpreting; it’s a book where I deliberately attempted to get to the truth of what it really means when people in the tech sector say they will replace people with machines. If you are an interpreter, a programmer with an interest in AI, deep learning or machine interpreting, or even just someone interested in the power and effects of technology, this book is for you.

As soon as the final release date is confirmed, I will bring you another update.

Stay Away from the Platform Edge

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 15, 2019

Is the rise in new platforms aimed at helping businesses buy in services  like web design, translation, interpreting and writing actually doing real harm to both buyers and sellers?

Wherever you look, you will find a new platform aiming to bring together freelancers and their clients. You can search for graphic designers, web designers, translators, proofreaders, interpreters, just about any service that can be offered by freelancers from the comfort of the home office.

It seems like a marriage made in service aggregation heaven. The freelancers can get away with less marketing and the buyers can pick up the services they need for a very competitive price, while comparing different providers against one another. Seems ideal, right?

The Dark Side of the Platforms – The Freelance View

The most basic flaw in the “platform” or “service aggregation” model is that they tend to drive down prices. Despite all the talk of qualifications and verification and despite all the claims to the contrary, the likelihood is that buyers will be attracted to those who seem to be offering the lowest price, especially when it is difficult for an outsider to tell the difference between say, an MITI with DipTrans and 5 years of experience with MemoQ and a translator who learned French on a boozy weekend in Bordeaux but has a five star feedback rating and testimonials from their mates all saying how great they are.

That leads to the mental and economic horror of a blind auction, where freelancers have to guess what will be the lowest price that will get them the work but still pay their bills. As someone who started his career hoping against hope (and mathematical certainty) that platforms would be my business salvation, I can easily recount the effects of sending bid after bid, only for a tiny fraction to even get a response.

Any platform that encourages bidding on projects will eventually drive away the best freelancers to look for better pay and drive many of those who remain into risking their mental health. There are only so many hamster wheels you can run on before you get tired, after all.

The Dark Side of Platforms – The Buyer Side

If all this sounds like a freelancer carping, I get it. Still, I have to admit that I have used certain platforms to buy in services too, with varying results. In my case, I had a distinct advantage, as I was buying services that I knew very well so I knew exactly what to look for. Even then, the response was crazy.

Back seven or eight years ago, when I used what was then the leading platform for the service I was buying, one advert got forty responses when all I needed was three people. Of the forty responses, about twenty were easy to delete as they were irrelevant, fifteen were interesting but not up to the level I needed and five were truly useful. I still ended up pulling in help from beyond the reach of the platform anyway.

Imagine going through that process if you didn’t know a service. Given the growth of work platforms, it is likely that any business buying from them would be faced with four hundred responses, rather than forty. Once the time to filter through responses and find the really good ones is priced up, any potential savings will disappear in a whisp of smoke.

Unless I really know the service I want to buy and unless I really know what results I want, I have come to the conclusion that hiring via a platform is always going to be costly and may be risky too. In an age where customer reviews aren’t always reliable or relevant, how can you really trust that you are getting what you are paying for?

The Potential of Platforms

Platforms, of course, aren’t all bad. As a last try for a service where you have no previous leads, they can be useful. But they certainly aren’t cheaper or quicker than any other method and they come with real risks.

Platforms do have a potential to do a lot of good, especially for those with small networks and little experience. On either side, they can give new freelancers a leg up and give small businesses a chance to get service they really need.

But they can’t be a panacea.

A Better Way to Buy

It may sound strange but in an algorithm-driven, tech-dominated world, the best way to get work done is probably to step away from your screen and talk to people in real-life. The website you are reading was designed and built by the incredible Tom Jones (no, not that one!), whose brother I have known for years. My latest business cards were redesigned and printed by a local printer I met at a business event. I can find many more examples .

As a consultant interpreter, I only work with interpreters I have either worked with before or who are recommended by those interpreters or who a by trusted colleagues I haven’t managed to work with yet. In the unlikely event that I can’t find the right person using those methods, I have other contacts and use the list of members of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

When we work on the basis of referral, rather than trusting our business future to algorithms we didn’t right and platforms we don’t fully understand, we reduce the risk of buying services from the wrong people and getting the wrong results. Instead of trusting random reviewers, the best results come from trusting the experience of people we know and can easily contact if their recommendation turns out not to be helpful.

People not Platforms

In short, while the platforms are useful if you don’t have any network at all, they come with big risks. It will always be more beneficial to your business and to the people offering the service for you to take the time and talk to people you know to discover who is already doing a great job. So the next time you are looking for an interpreter, keep back from the platform edge.

For free advice on getting the right interpreter for your next event, drop me an email.

One Simple Way Machine Interpreting Could Benefit Interpreters

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 1, 2019

Five years ago, I wrote a cheeky post for the LifeinLINCS blog detailing some off-the-wall inventions that interpreters would love. Now, however, with the advent of machine interpreting software that can manage a basic conversation, I think it’s time to properly ask those who know their vector spaces from their z-tests if they could make us a single invention, which would ease the work of lots of conference interpreters.

Introducing AutoTermDive

The idea is very simple: one tricky problem in conference interpreting is that, even with the best research in the world, speakers seem able to find terms that the interpreters have never come across before. Worse, in the heat of a detailed speech, it is entirely possible that an interpreter could falter in finding that important term that that really did memorise but have suddenly forgotten.

Since Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) is now at the point where I no longer have to pass the phone to my wife when a phone system asks me to describe my issue and our smartphones are fast enough to do basic speech translation, surely we have the tech to fix that issue once and for all.

Here’s how I imagine it working.

While the speaker is talking, an ASR system scans the words and word clusters they use. Any words that are in the top 1000 most used words in the source language can be ignored but, if a word is rare, the system should automatically search the interpreter’s term bank for it. In fact, in an ideal world. the interpreter should be able to tell the system which domains they are working in (say, engineering, finance, HR) so it would prioritise rare words from that domain.

Since interpreters don’t want to be distracted, the system should then simply project the original term and its term bank version onto a rugged, travel-proof Heads-Up Display that the interpreter has placed in front of them.

But what if the term is rare and the interpreter hasn’t stored it already? In those cases, the system should be able to run parallel searches for it in the interpreter’s favourite term bases (think IATE, online and offline technical dictionaries, etc) and project the one or two most likely candidate translations.

The Challenges

There are a few technical headaches with this. In terms of language processing, teaching the system when to look up a single word term and when to treat a cluster as a term would be tricky. There is, after all a big difference between “shot” and “shot-blasting” and between “road” and “middle of the road”.

I’m no expert but it does seem that some kind of neural model and the ability to use the same system for semi-automated term mining beforehand might help the system “learn” what units count as a term in each domain. Possibly.

The second challenge is getting the user interface right. While experts in interpreter cognition, like Prof Kilian Seeber, have argued that interpreters simultaneously process information from multiple sources, there does still seem to be a point at which interpreters get overloaded. Add to this Prof Daniel Gile’s argument that there can be a gap between interpreters hitting an issue and it actually affecting their performance and you leave interface designers with the tricky task of ensuring that the system provides help when its needed but doesn’t distract interpreters when they’re doing fine.

There has been some research to try to fix that but it is still a challenge and it might take more research on problem triggers and performance drops to fix it for good. For the moment, using Heads-Up Displays, which allow the interpreters to still see through them, instead of asking them to look down from the speaker, would at least reduce the issue.

So, is anyone up for building one of those systems or testing one?

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