Integrity Languages


Do you need an interpreting agency?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 7, 2020

If you have an international event that is multilingual, you’re going to need to find interpreters – those funny people who sit in boxes and talk or work remotely. That means that your first stop should be an interpreting agency, right?

Interpreting Agencies: useful but not universal

The answer is, maybe. While it can be very tempting to simply contact the first conference interpreting agency that turns up on the Google Search results or pick whichever one seems to have the best name, that isn’t always helpful.

I have written before about the different ways to find interpreters and the differences between agencies and consultants but the most important differences boil down to this:

  • Unless the agency is run by interpreters, they won’t have a personal understanding of what it takes to deliver great interpreting

This can lead to them recruiting the first people who say yes to their emails, picking the cheapest equipment suppliers or simply prioritising margin over results. Sure, I doubt any agency would ever admit to doing that but certainly, you have to have suspicions about any agency that offers “instant quotes”, “5000 interpreters covering every language” or “lingusits available 24/7”.

Put simply, the people who know the best ways to get the best out of interpreting are …. (drumroll for suspense) interpreters. The very best agencies, unless they are run by interpreters, will be specialists in processes, protocols and recruiting, not necessarily in getting precisely the right interpreting you need. Interpreter-run agencies will necessarily know more about how to get the best out of interpreters and can offer a great half-way house.

  • Unless the agency actually attend the events they staff, they don’t know about the specific skills of each interpreter

That might not sound important but it really is. I have some conference interpreter colleagues who I would trust with my life in a technical meeting. I wouldn’t even ask them to do a sales meeting though. I know others who specialise in interpreting tours with verve and pizzazz but you wouldn’t want to let them near accounts.

When you work alongside interpreters, you get to know their skills and abilities. You simply don’t see that at the end of a phone.

  • Agencies excel in meetings where scale matters

Given their expertise in processes and the hundreds of CVs they receive, agencies tend to do great when you need thirty interpreters within 48 hours. They also tend to win contracts where people are buying interpreting in bulk, such as thousands of hours of court interpreting a month or interpreting in hundreds of languages. Consultant interpreters, due to their specialisation and reliance on networks, tend not to scale their teams as quickly. Give them time and they can still find you 20 medical interpreters to cover ten languages for a specialist medical conference. That’s something I have already done personally!

Choose Consultants when Partnership Matters

While interpreting agencies excel at scale, consultant interpreters excel at partnership. When the future of your business is on the line, you really need a consultant interpreter who can build a custom team. When the event going well is the difference between a contract being signed and your turnover taking a dive, you need someone who can work with you, just like consultants do.

If you are buying huge amounts of interpreting, you might need an agency. If your next event is about getting great results due to partnership with an expert, you need a consultant. If you need a consultant interpreter to build you a personalised, custom team of interpreters, drop me an email.

The MICE industry needs to listen to micro-businesses

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 25, 2020

I am just out of an excellent C&IT Briefing webinar on the MICE industry after COVID-19. It was informative, energetic and empowering. Sure, one or two speakers could have done with thinking more about the needs of their audience and the importance of a good connection and clear audio but other than than, it was excellent.

One Small Flaw

There was, however, one small flaw and it is a flaw that runs like a crack throughout the MICE industry as a whole. As I wrote in Exhibition World, the MICE industry is loaded heavily against small and micro suppliers.

In addition to being all but ignored (or milked like walking cash-cows) by major events, in favour of big DMCs and corporate with deep pockets, smaller suppliers tend not to get a seat at the table when people are talking about the MICE industry as a whole, despite their importance in it. For their webinar, C&IT magazine chose to pick a selection of speakers from corporates, DMCs, growing tech companies and consultancies.

They all had wonderful perspectives to share but none had experienced the panic experienced by many freelancers and independent suppliers, who may have spent the last quarter desperately trying to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables. None spoke at any length about the need to support such suppliers and my question on such support went unasked by the host and therefore unanswered by the panel.

It’s a small flaw. It is one that could have gone unnoticed but it is still a flaw and, given that such small and indepedent suppliers are the lifeblood in the industry, it is one that really shouldn’t be repeated.

A Solution

The solution is simple. Organisations doing events on the MICE industry need to ensure that they include not just a cross-section of different parts of the sector but different sizes of entities too. For example, reserving a single seat for an independent supplier or freelancer and holding specific briefings for smaller entities would be a great place to start.

The Future of MICE after COVID-19

All the speakers were correct to point out that the future of the MICE industry requires consumer trust to be rebuilt and for people across the industry to be able to put on immersive, experiential events. They all had wonderful ideas on how to do that and their confidence is almost certainly not misplaced.

C&IT magazine should be applauded for putting on such an incredible event. Next time, us smaller suppliers would like to take a seat at the table too.

Basic Tips to Improve Your Marketing

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 11, 2020

[Editor’s note: Usually this blog deals with topics of interest to interpreting users and this will resume soon. But, with almost all businesses having to rethink their marketing, given the COVID-19 crisis, I thought it would be good to hear a different perspective. Clare Suttie is the Owner and Director of Atlas Translations, a UK translation agency. Here is her view on how to get notice by translation agencies. Much of what she says applies to every potential client you might want to woo.]

I recently seemed to hit a nerve with an article on LinkedIn, asking translators not to just send me over their CV.

Some people agreed with my recommendations to make a personal approach, others seemed to be highly offended. It was a light-hearted article, with a serious message.  And then Jonathan asked me – how do you send an email that a client – especially a translation company – may actually respond to.

I have been running Atlas Translations since 1991, and back then, if you wanted someone’s attention, you had to write them a letter and post it. In my case, we delivered leaflets in person by bicycle, which did raise some interest in who we were and what exactly we were doing!  Even when email arrived, it took a while for many companies to catch up with technology.

Of course now, it’s easier than ever to research clients. No more going to the library to leaf through the business directories and Yellow Pages. A quick visit to the ITI website can identify around 100 reputable translation companies. Just fire them all the same email, sit back and wait for your reply.

Well, yes. You could try that. You might get a couple of standard cut and paste responses. But probably you’d find that some of them wouldn’t match what you do, you’d end up in junk mail folders, and you’d just be deleted as they are not currently recruiting. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

The whole sending your CV over idea is quite dated in itself. In 1991, I sat in an office surrounded by files. We had a file for each language combination. When a job came in, we’d pore over the relevant file, looking for someone who specialised in that area. We looked at a CV, we printed it, we sent out application forms and reference requests by post. Our office was FULL of paper. And we had an exercise bike which no-one ever used; it was handy for hanging coats. But that’s another story.

Now if you send someone a CV, what will they do with it? Chances are, like Atlas, they will have their own application system online which they will point you towards. But how do you make yourself more than just another applicant?

There’s no instant magic bullet, but because I like Jonathan I shall break it down into as small a list as I can (because believe me, I could write pages about this). Note that I am specifically  referring to clients within the UK.

Stage one – Research

Set a target of say, 10 companies a week that you will contact.

Research – what kind of clients do you want to work with?

Ask around – on translator networks, people you know

Make a list of those 10 and take a look at their website.

See what their application process is.

Find an email address, ideally an actual person rather than info@ address.

Stage two – Make Contact

Send them an individual, personal email. Just to them. Don’t cc or bcc anyone else.

Spell their name correctly

Use their name. Sir/Madam is pretty generic and impersonal.

Mention something that shows you have done some research – for instance – I see your office is in St Albans, one of my favourite places. Is the Kings Arms still going? Or more directly, I took a look at your website and I can see that you work with many legal companies. As I used to work at a legal firm, this is one of my specialist areas, particularly contract law. I wondered if we could be a good fit?

I promise, if you make it personal, we are all much more likely to reply.

If the company is local, consider dropping in to say hello (best to phone first) and drop off a packet of biscuits. Everyone knows that Project Managers need biscuits. Or cake.

It goes without saying, but I always have to say it because I still see awful CVs, your CV should be free of errors, clearly laid out and easy to read. Don’t bury all your experience on the second page. Blow your trumpet – this is not the time to be modest. Give it a name that says what you are. So not CV.doc or Mylatestcv.doc.  More like – ClareSuttie – French and German to English Translator

Stage three – Follow their instructions

It might be annoying, and yes, I know, it’s all in your CV. But if they want you to fill in a form, then fill in the form. In our case, this puts your information into our database so that you will appear in searches. Because (never start a sentence with because, thanks for that earworm Mrs Thomas English) the days of our files of printed out CVs are LONG GONE. We are almost paper-free! Each translation company may have different requirements. We are all different companies. I am afraid you will just have to deal with it.

Stage four – Post application communication

You’ve gone to all that trouble, and you are approved! Hurrah! Where’s the work??

The nature of freelance work means that you may not be contacted immediately with offers of work. However, there are things I believe you can do to increase your chances. And this will vary according to the client (you may need to start a spreadsheet to keep track – in fact I insist that you do)!

Once you are approved, say thanks. See who the Project Managers are, and if you can contact them directly to say hello. Again, keep those approaches personal.

OK – Hi, I am available for work this week, Regards, Bob

Better – hope the sun is shining up there in St Albans. I have just finished an enormous job about cat food, so I am available for work if you get anything in German to English relating to my specialist areas of marketing, contracts – and cat food of course! Best wishes, Bob

Stage five – Don’t give up

A year goes by. They STILL haven’t given you any work. Again, get in touch with them. Tell them you’re still around. Remind them what you do. Project Managers come and go, they have maternity and paternity leave, they swap jobs. With Atlas, our database shows the last time the applicant updated their record. If they applied 10 years ago and have never logged in since, we are far less likely to contact them as we worry they’ve changed email addresses, their prices won’t be correct and they may not even be working as a translator any more.

Optional Stage – make a phone call

Controversial or what? I know. For some reason, when I suggest this, some translators react as if I’ve suggested they set fire to their own hair. But you *could* make just a very short phone call.

Hi, I’m Bob and I translate German to English, mostly legal subject areas. Do you get a lot of work in that area?

From that intro, you will soon get an idea of whether this translation company is likely to be a good fit with what you do. Another promise here – most translation company staff are LOVELY PEOPLE. They will answer the phone, they will speak to you. They are humans. They might say

To be honest Bob, we don’t work with German as we specialise in Nordic languages.


Thank goodness you called Bob, we are really short of German to English legal translators. Can you send me your CV?

Don’t mention rates! Er, actually yes, you should

The other question you can drop into a phone (or e-mail) conversation is one about rates. Every translation company pays different rates, every client pays different rates.

Can I just check what you generally pay German to English legal translators, per 1000 source words?

Give it a try, they will likely tell you. It may be more than you thought. It may be less. If it fits with you, write it on your spreadsheet. If it doesn’t, well you won’t have wasted your time filling out forms. Move on.

I know my advice is particular to what we look for at Atlas, but I really believe that if translators tailored their approaches to translation companies they would get a much better response. Better to be registered with 5 good companies likely to provide regular work than 50 random companies who you have no idea about.

Ban PowerPoint at online events

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 28, 2020

Slides are often unnecessary, regularly misused and more than likely a pointless addition to your presentation.

Yeah, I said it. Don’t pretend you haven’t ever thought the same.

It’s almost always the same story. Take one nervous or unthinking presenter, add a desire to cram as much info as possible into a talk, lob in access to PowerPoint and what do you get?

A talk with 24 slides per minute, each including fifteen bullet points, a tiny drawing or chart that looks like it could be either a shocked cat or a complex equation, and an audience who could have learned just as much, if not more, by simply downloading the slides themselves and reading them over a cup of coffee.

Where video is available, the vast majority of virtual presentations don’t need slides, shouldn’t have slides and don’t benefit from slides.

The No Slide rule explained

I recently had the opportunity to speak at the BP20 online conference and I shocked a few people by dispensing with slides entirely. I had noticed, from previous webinars elsewhere and even from another talk at the same conference, that slides actually serve as a distraction.

If the speaker is simply making some specific points, they are better making them clearly and with conviction, with their face to the camera. Having a bullet point flash up on the screen often slows them down or derails their thinking.

If they are tempted to make too many points, they’d be better making fewer points and getting them right. It’s much better to have two really strong messages than 20 tiny details.

If a speaker wants to show an example, a picture says more than many words and a physical prop is always more interesting than a list of bullet points or a tiny table.

Instead of turning to PowerPoint right away, we need to put far more emphasis on creativity, connection and relevance.

Reading dulls your speaking

Have you ever been in a church service where people read out some Bible verses together or recite something? It turns even the most excitable people into slow drones.

Exactly the same thing happens with PowerPoint. The most passionate speaker starts reading out a list of bullets and fumbling for their words. The most enthusiastic audience catches themselves reading instead of listening. And anyone at home can just make do with putting the presenter on mute.

Interpreters spend their entire careers warning speakers of the danger of reading from a text. We need to warn them about the dangers of PowerPoint too!

Constrain, Create, Connect

Here’s my point. If we can get people away from PowerPoint during virtual events, we will get better events.

If speakers think they need to present huge lists of figures, what they need to create is an email or a memo, not a presentation.

If speakers feel that they need to make 101 points in size 8 font, they need to learn to concentrate on the points that matter, not everyone they could make.

If speakers really feel that they have to use tons of pictures, diagrams, or charts, then they need to think about how people learn, not what they want to say.

In short, by banning PowerPoint and its kin for every virtual event where there is a video feed, we can help people do three vital things to their talks:

Constrain what they say by sticking to the most important points for the audience and the 2-3 things they want people to remember.

Create talks that are a pleasure to listen to and go far beyond just passing information.

Connect with the audience, rather than just treating each talk like a direct brain dump.

The more event organisers help speakers concentrate on those three things, the better our online events will be.

Thank you for reading this post. If you really want to boost your speaking skills, I created a course just for you. You can find it here:

Remote Interpreting: A personal position

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 2, 2020

If any topic is going to stir up interpreters, it is remote interpreting. While interpreters have been able to deliver their services remotely since the advent of telephone interpreting, new technologies and increasing internet speeds have made space for a new generation of remote interpreting technologies. This post addresses these and gives my own personal position as a researcher and consultant interpreter. Feel free to agree or disagree.

In many ways, this post is a follow-up to the brief note to conference organisers thinking of cancelling their events due to coronavirus (COVID-19). While that note was meant as a very brief suggestion for those who needed short-term, emergency help (which explains why two reputable remote interpreting companies where mentioned), this is the place for a fuller position.

The Starting Point

The starting point for this position is the position paper published by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, which was based on the best and most comprehensive research available at the time. It gives recommendations based on a realistic view of the potential and pitfalls of remote interpreting. This is exactly what I will also do in this post for my personal position. If you would like the headlines, scroll down to the headers in italics in the section marked “my personal position” or click the link.

It is important to start from the position that, while there are lots of different remote interpreting technologies available, from hardwired remote simultaneous interpreting hubs to people working on their own at home, they have more in common than sets them apart. They all involve taking the interpreters away from the people for whom they are interpreting. No matter how good the technology, no matter which standards are upheld, this factor remains.

Another basic point that is also forgotten is that the world is seeing the growth in meeting formats that simply didn’t exist as few as ten years ago. Webinars, livestreaming, hybrid conferences, virtual conferences, remote participation, immersive events and the like will need a very different approach to interpreting than we have now. We simply can’t assume that the setups that were used for large diplomatic conferences in the 1950s will work for immersive VR events involving delegates located on four continents in the 2020s.

One last thing we also forget at our peril is that interpreters have to communicate differently to clients than they do to each other. While this blog is usually 100% client-facing, this is one of the few posts where I want to clarify a position to both audiences.

While it is perfectly correct to remind each other to uphold professional standards, our outward-facing communication has to concentrate on problem-solving. Sometimes suggesting a short-term solution to resolve an emergency is better than losing everything through inflexibility. How many people complain about bent bodywork on an ambulance when they’re being taken to hospital for urgent surgery? We have to uphold the highest standards to look after own own wellbeing and we have to find workable solutions to immediate problems. If those seem to conflict, we need to rethink our approach.

All that being said, it is important to understand remote more clearly, taking the kind of all-emcompassing approach I am taking here. Let’s do this fairly and start with the advantages of all remote, before looking at the disadvantages and synthesising them into my own personal position.

What Remote does well

The idea of interpreting being delivered in a different place to the actual speaker or even the event itself presents several distinct advantages. For a start, at a time when more meetings are becoming virtual and politics and health can restrict travel for events, remote interpreting of one form or another is an excellent solution, especially for the environmentally conscious.

At the risk of stating the obvious, remote interpreting means that interpreters can be hired from anywhere and work at any meeting. Not only does this allow them to overcome any short-term restrictions on their movement but it allows interpreting to be provided where professional interpreters would otherwise be in short supply.

Already, remote interpreting is allowing better access to healthcare and legal interpreting in remote communities. It is making interpreting available to front line emergency workers before an interpreter can get there in person, saving precious time, and is reducing the time taken to source and supply legal interpreting in many countries.

Add to this the possibility of webinars being made available in several languages at once, technology enabling speakers from the Global South to participate remotely in conferences they otherwise would be unable to attend and businesses being able to save cost and carbon by having initial meetings with potential global clients online and you have some incredible potential.

One last advantage, which is rarely discussed is that remote interpreting could improve work-life balance for interpreters and allow them to work more often when they have children. As much as we love travelling, enabling interpreters to work from home sometimes could be a key shift in improving interpreter wellbeing and income.

All of the advantages of remote interpreting are therefore clustered round two ideas: its ability to break down geographical barriers and its inherent flexibility. These are areas that interpreting has needed to address for a while and we can no longer ignore their importance. That being said, remote does have significant drawbacks, which are all too often ignored by companies selling it.

What is wrong with Remote?

Ironically, the disadvantages of remote stem from the very same roots as its advantages. Let’s start with the breaking of geographical barriers.

Yes, it is a good thing to allow interpreting to be supplied everywhere but research since the 1990s has shown us the importance of the physical presence of the interpreter. In a nutshell, separating the interpreter from the speakers prevents them from doing some of the very things that most separate them out from machines.

A simple example is that fact that researchers such as Cynthia Roy, Cecilia Wadensjö, Graham Turner, Ebru Diriker, Seyda Eraslan, Philipp Angermeyer and Jemina Napier have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that excellent interpreting involves the interpreter working with the other participants to make meaning. This includes adding explanations, omitting irrelevant information, asking for clarification, adjusting metaphors and pronoun use, talking to speakers and audience members between sessions, understanding the needs of each individual meeting, reformulating content and even, in some cases, acting as gatekeepers so they can actually interpret what is being said.

The fact that these behaviours have been found in situations ranging from a professor-student meeting to a debate at the European Parliament, as well as legal interpreting, is enough to tell us that all interpreting involves active participation by the interpreter and all interpreting requires incredible situational awareness.

We should therefore be very concerned that the research collated in the AVIDICUS project, which likewise covers just about every interpreting setting you can name, shows that remote interpreters universally feel more distant from the events for which they work. There are also several reports of interpreters feeling that they could not use the whole suite of skills they would be able to use in person, leading to feelings that don’t perform as well while working remotely. Studies in interpreter concentration likewise show that quality tails off more quickly when working remotely.

This sense of distance also seems to have had mental health implications and implications in terms of how clients work with interpreters. While the data on the issue is still scant, there are reports of interpreters saying that they receive less information when they work remotely and the growth of unsuitable solutions that allow interpreters to be routinely hired with no notice, such as the one offered recently by Zoom, will only make things worse. This is before we even think about pay and how this is calculated.

This leads neatly into the problems with flexibility. The lack of standardisation of remote and the way it has sometimes been sold means that there is a real risk that interpreters could end up working in ways that are not conducive to their long-term well-being. Poor ergonomics, lack of acoustic shock protection, poorly-suited screens, unsociable hours and working without human company for long periods are all real dangers in remote.

In short, the very flexibility that makes remote a good solution also creates problems. A simple example is a project I was offered, where an agency decided to hire interpreters in the UK to interpret remotely at a conference in Kenya. The time difference and conference schedule meant that every single day included unsociable hours. In addition, the pay was lower than usual and the client did not commit to sending documentation in advance. Needless to say, I turned it down but it represents the dangers that can arise precisely due to flexibility.

Oddly, that project is the reverse of the effect we might expect remote to have. It is entirely possible that remote could be used by unscrupulous actors to create a kind of price dumping, where interpreting is offshored to cheaper labour markets for events in countries where interpreting is more expensive. I have seen no immediate sign of this but it is a possibility.

What trends can we expect?

Before, we get into my personal recommendations, we need to ground them in reality. It might seem noble to scream at a falling coin at the top of your lungs but if you’re on earth, it’s still going to hit he ground anyway. Likewise, we have to understand what trends are likely and which are likely unstoppable before we come up with any kind of position. Better to make achievable improvements than to waste time on stuff that will never get done.

Here are the trends I am seeing:

  • Remote is here and it will continue to grow over time.
  • There will be very good remote providers, where experienced interpreters are in key positions or at least are listened to, and there will be poor ones, who care more about their marketing than they do about the interpreters who make their profits possible.
  • The client-facing marketing of remote will continue to say nothing much about its dangers. Smart providers will work on mitigating the issues anyway. In addition, some remote platform providers will simply provide a platform while others will take control of the interpreter hiring process.
  • Positions on remote will range from “remote is taking over everything, mwhahahahaha” to “remote is evil.” The truth will continue to be somewhere in the middle and interpreters themselves will probably be arranged in a rough bell curve across the two extremes. As usual, those with extreme views will make more noise than moderates.
  • Remote interpreting will make a huge difference to remote communities and to implementations where in-person interpreting just isn’t reasonable or feasible. Unscrupulous buyers and suppliers will also try to use it for unreasonable cost-savings. There will probably be more talk about places where it is being used stupidly than places where it is saving lives.
  • Remote will lead to the questioning, if not quasi-collapse, of taken-for-granted interpreting categories and assumptions, with interpreters increasingly becoming domain specialists (e.g. manufacturing, law, science, medicine), instead of setting specialists (e.g. conference, court, business). Geographical location will mean less and less and hence the idea of the “Paris market” or the “Brussels market” and even perhaps the idea of a professional domicile will also become lesss meaningful as interpreters work with the same clients across a number of settings, modes and virtual and physical locations. Many interpreters will therefore use remote on top of in-person work, or even vice-versa.

My personal position

This all leads to my own personal position, which is far more complex than it has ever been before. I’d like to apologise to any of my colleagues who were confused by what might have seemed like vacillation, as I was working out these ideas. Let’s go through the headlines.

Remote is not the same as in-person interpreting

Again this is very basic but underlines the rest of everything I will say. I believe that, for as long as we try to see remote as either a version of in-person interpreting or as performing exactly the same role, we will be headed for trouble. We have to understand that remote interpreting is neither the spawn of the devil for attempting to send us all to our rooms forever nor is it an angel from on high for freeing us from the shackles of booths. It is something different and needs to be seen from that vantage point.

Remote therefore should never be marketed as a like-for-like replacement of in-person work

Again, this borders on the obvious but it needs said. We know too much about the importance of real presence for the work of interpreters and their mental health for any reasonable human being to say that remote is just a high-tech way of doing in-person interpreting.

Instead of joining the bandwagon of assuming that remote will complete with in-person all the time, we should recognise it for its real benefits, especially in extreme situations, such as health crises, war, and a lack of local professionals. It must also be seen as the delivery method of choice for any situation where the participants are all in different locations. When there is no “there” for the interpreters to travel to, remote is the most obvious choice. If the delegates are all in the same room and travel is safe, the interpreters should be in the same room too.

The only exception to this is where time is of the essence. We should not see the use of remote by emergency workers as a threat to in-person but as a support that acts as a kind of paramedic until a human can be there in person, as long as all of the interpreting is provided by qualified professionals.

The top issue with remote is no longer tech but well-being

Since they provide the systems, pressure should be put on all remote interpreting providers to prove that they are taking interpreter well-being seriously. This ranges from installing acoustic shock prevention systems as soon as possible to demonstrating that they have provision for mental health support. They know the risks by now, they should be doing something about them.

This also means that, rather than taking sides in the hubs vs home-working debate, associations need to be working with providers to ensure that both solutions are physically and mentally ergonomic for interpreters. It is entirely possible for a home-working interpreter to have a more ergonomic setup than any ISO standard provides for. It is also possible for people to be treated like junk in a hub. Of course, there are also going to be amazing hubs and people working from home in awful circumstances. Both have their place and their problems.

In short, rather than trying to force remote interpreting into the mold and standards of in-person interpreting, we need work to develop new standards, which cover issues that have not yet been mentioned in existing standards in addition to what we already have. These need to take into account the latest research available, the unique challenge of different delivery methods and use cases and the inherent flexibility of remote, which is its key selling point.

In short, insisting all remote interpreting takes place in hubs is counter-productive and most likely, not feasible. Insisting that remote interpreting must be delivered according to the highest professional standards, based on what we have learned about in-person interpreting standards and the best research on remote available is inherently sensible. If anything, standards for remote interpreting need to be more stringent than in-person ones. New tech needs new thinking.

These remote standards will need to cover everything from encryption to shift length (shorter than current standards for in-person simultaneous), interpreter-to-interpreter communication, equipment and broadcast standards, mental health support and much much more. Taking the most relevant parts of current ISO standards will be a good start but we will need to go much, much further than we have ever done before and we will need to get all stakeholders involved.

Prepare for good and bad disruption

Irresponsible actors will be irresponsible and interpreters should be empowered to avoid them, whichever contracts they win. Good actors will be good and they need praise and public mentions.

Yes, some jobs that shouldn’t go remote will go remote. If the outcomes are as bad as we think, they’ll come back. Yes, some people will try to slash rates. If that leads to bad interpreters being hired, the rates will bounce back.

On the other hand, the flow of interpreting work could end up being more constant, interpreters will be able to come back more quickly from parental leave, new markets will open up and we might even more clients using interpreting. Bigger, even more complex, markets leave more space for everyone and the interruption of remote is likely to create more in-person work as people are sensitised to interpreting and what it can do.

Quit talking about in-person vs remote

This speaks for itself. No, not every interpreter will adopt remote and they won’t have to. No, not all remote providers will adopt the best standards but the good interpreters will avoid them. But we can only find a way through this mess if we commit to working together, even to the point of recommending solutions we don’t personally use, for occasions where they are relevant. I love working in the booth and still see it as the gold standard for in-person conferences. I also don’t currently offer remote as I have four young kids but I am still happy to suggest that adopting some form of remote during a crisis is better than interpreters getting no work at all.

The choice: order the waves to halt or build a power station

There’s an old British story of a king called Cnut, who sat on a chair on a beach and ordered the waves to stop. Depending on who you ask, he was either a raving lunatic who thought that it would work or he was showing his courtiers that even the king was subject to the natural world.

With remote, we can either do a Cnut and scream at it to stop or to look like the interpreting we deliver right now or we can build a power station to harness it for the good of all. The position we take is entirely our choice. Personally, I hope that we will work together to build tough but fair standards, welcome the flexibility, look after interpreters and deliver incredible, flexible, sustainable interpreting for clients. Remote isn’t something I routinely offer right now and my concerns about it haven’t changed much since I have started looking at it closely. But I would be a fool to ignore people like Sarah Hickey, who remind us that it is here and it works.

The challenge now is to ensure it works for everyone.

A tiny coda

Needless to say, all this will only work if we all work together, respect each others’ positions (even where we disagree) and commit to acting professionally at all times. This means being brave enough to talk directly with those with whom we disagree, trying to see things from others’ points of view and assuming the best of others until we have real reason to do anything else. This counts across clients and interpreters alike. If remote is the right solution for a client, let them adopt it. If they are thinking of going remote but in-person will give better results, explain why.

Is remote right for you as a client? Maybe.

Is it right for everything? No.

But it is right to make sure it works right in those places where it is appropriate.

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.

A more detailed appraisal of the current state of remote interpreting and where it is leading can be found in my personal position.

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.

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