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Over-hyped, Under-thought and nowhere near ready: Machine Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 12, 2017

A few months ago, I was flying to an important meeting and I was flicking through the in-flight magazine (for pitching purposes, you see). As I did that I spotted a short paragraph touting the latest technological development: an in-ear device that promised to translate flawlessly from one language to another. It looks like from now own event managers can dispense with us interpreters for good and just load up on a supply of tiny devices to make sure everyone has a great event, no matter which language they speak.

 

Obviously that isn’t going to happen.

 

Despite the wonderful headlines in the press and the incredible claims made by marketing departments, the chances of machine interpreting ear-pieces doing anything more than replacing phrasebooks is miniscule.

 

Why?

 

Firstly, there is nothing fundamentally new in the technology used in such devices. Machine translation of some sort or another has been around since the 1940s and is still producing results that range from the plausible to the ridiculous. Remember when google translate turned Russia into Mordor? Remember all those websites displaying mangled English because of poor use of machine translation?

 

Without going into the fine detail of where machine translation actually stands right now (you can read that in this article), basically, unless you are willing to spend months training it and are okay restricting your language to controlled phrases, the results of machine translation will be a bit dodgy.

 

When it comes to magical translation ear-pieces, machine translation is twinned with voice recognition – the technology that is still giving us frustrating helplines, semi-useful virtual assistants and the fury of everyone who doesn’t have a “standard accent”. Sure, voice recognition technology is advancing all the time but it still works best when you use a noise-cancelling microphone and speak super-clearly – not quite the thing for crowded cafés or busy conferences.

 

The second reason why translation headsets are not a cure-all is that interpreting is about far more than just matching a word or phrase in one language with a word or phrase in another. Language is a strange beast and in all communication, people use idioms, metaphors, similes, sarcasm, irony, understatement, and implications and are tuned to social cues, intentions, body language, atmosphere and intonation. At the moment, and for as much of the future as we can predict, computers will struggle to handle even one of those things.

 

Human interpreters have to be expert people readers as well as having enviable language knowledge. Ask the CEO for whom an interpreter helped sort out a cultural and terminological misunderstanding that threatened to lose the company a deal with several million pounds. Ask the doctor who worked with an interpreter to be culturally-aware enough to give a patient the right treatment. Ask the speaker whose interpreter prevented him from making a big, but accidental cultural mistake.

 

When human interpreters work, they don’t simply function as walking dictionaries. They take what is said in one language, try to understand its meaning, tone, and purpose and then recreate it in another language in a way that will work in that specific context.

 

The only way that machines could ever do that would be if meetings and events were just about stuffing information into people’s heads and human beings always said exactly what they meant in a completely neutral way. With the current emphasis on the importance of delegate experience and our newfound awareness that people are more than just robots, it makes sense that we would realise that their communication deserves to be handled by experts, not machines.

 

So the next time someone tries to persuade you that you should let machines take over the interpreting at your event, just remember: for information processing, use a computer; for experience and expertise, work with humans.

Is Your NDA Working Against Your Business?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 29, 2017

Non-Disclosure Agreements: for many businesses, they are a fact of life. If you have IP to protect or confidential information to keep safe, it is likely that you have a template NDA stashed in a folder somewhere that you ask anyone working for you or with you to sign. But is your current NDA helping or hindering your business?

I am no lawyer, so I won’t even attempt to give a legal view but, having had to read and sign my fair share of those documents as an interpreter, I have seen some companies get it right and others mess up. Let’s talk about how to mess up an NDA.

No matter how amazing your business, as long as you aren’t MI5 or the NSA, you probably don’t want your NDA to insist that all translators or interpreters working with you must refer every single terminology issue back to you. If you trust them enough to ask them to work with you in the first place, it makes sense to trust them to do terminology and background research in a way that will not jeopardise the confidentiality of your sensitive information.

A more sensible approach, which is thankfully becoming more widespread, is to draw a line between commercially sensitive information (which should never be disclosed unless there is a legal imperative to do so) and general information. Someone checking with a colleague what the French for “left-handed spark plug” is unlikely to have a negative effect on your business. Someone telling your competitors how many you sold last year just might!

Similarly, event managers do need some leeway to tell their suppliers about the nature and purpose of an event. If your NDA says something like “no information which comes into the provider’s possession due to the assignment may be passed to any third parties”, you have just stopped them actually making the event work!

 It will always be vital to get a legal view on the strictness of your NDA but, at the same time, do ask your providers what levels of disclosure are reasonable and necessary for them to do their jobs. If you don’t do that, you may find them completely unable to deliver the service you are paying them for!

Why Chemistry Counts

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 21, 2017

Who would you rather refer work to: the over-achiever who deliberately isolates and insults everyone they meet or the person who does good work but is much easier to work with? Would you rather book the arrogant diva or the hard working and helpful supplier?
Eventually, no matter how good someone is at their job, if they have character issues or are just plain mean, they will discover a ceiling to their success. People like to work with people who are pleasant to work with.
We all have colleagues who are great at their jobs but poor at working with people. Eventually, people like that find themselves passed over for assignments and wondering what has gone wrong.
Whatever profession you are in, you are in the people business. That’s why chemistry counts and why it will always be worth the hard work to learn how to build and maintain relationships.

The Ultimate Interpreter Brief

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 12, 2017

If you organise or manage international events, this is for you.

To celebrate The Meetings Show 2017, I am pleased to offer the Ultimate Interpreter Brief, an absolutely free template, with no catches. It is entirely white label for you to add your company logo to and covers all the details needed by interpreters, agencies and consultant interpreters. On a single A4 Microsoft Word form, it holds the kind of information that would normally take days to finalise.

And it is yours for free.

But I can go even better than that.

I know that not all event managers and organisers are used to working with interpreters, so I have provided a completely free 10 minute tutorial on how to use the Ultimate Interpreter Brief, including some useful hints on best practice. And that is yours for free too!

If you would like any further information or to book me to provide interpreters for an upcoming event, click on this link.

Here are the links you will need.
The Ultimate Interpreter Brief template is here.

And this is the youtube tutorial:

Why I Only Offer On-site Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: 

It is a trend that is both incredibly promising and incredibly controversial. Remote interpreting, where the interpreter can be located absolutely anywhere and yet still interpret for your event via a phone call or online platform, has become big business and is set to grow even more. So why would any consultant interpreter not jump at the opportunities it offers?

 

Don’t get me wrong. I can see the benefits of remote interpreting. With the growth in virtual meetings and the never-ending need for interpreters in dangerous situations, remote interpreting will enable business and save lives. I really do welcome its growth. But it also represents a trend that I have strategically chosen not to follow.

 

In modern, high-tech remote interpreting, interpreting is sold as a service that clients can dial into any time, with no particular commitment. That is great for some clients who might only ever need an interpreter for one conversation or who might want a bit of linguistic assistance here and there. It is not so good for those of us who are pushing for interpreting to be seen as a partnership.

 

In my own research and practice, I have seen how powerful it can be when speakers, interpreters, audience members and event organisers work together closely. While instant, remote interpreting is good, I have seen even better, longer-lasting results from being in the room, reading the situation closely and understanding the needs, wants and motivations of all those involved – the kind of involvement that is impossible when you aren’t physically there.

 

While in the past, having interpreting at a meeting was a marker of prestige, we are now fast arriving at a fundamental division in the profession. On one side, there will be interpreting as a service: slotting in seamlessly where needed and available at a touch of a button without any commitment. On the other side, there will be interpreting as partnership: delivering not just accurate interpreting but interpreting that is keyed to each particular context, audience and goal. In the former, interpreting will be incidental, there because of a transient need. In the latter, interpreting will be there not just because of a need but to provide real, lasting, ongoing value.

 

I have decided that the core purpose of my business is to be the person clients can trust to bring together teams of experts who are as committed to the success of their events as they are. From where I sit, that simply isn’t possible with any kind of interpreting delivery platform, with their automated sorting and emphasis on speedy choice.

 

I sincerely wish the developers of remote interpreting every success but I won’t be joining them.

 

If your business could do with someone to build you an interpreting dream team that you can work with again and again, it’s time we talked. Drop me an email for a free, no obligation chat.

Building Credibility in a New Market

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 6, 2017

Whatever kind of business you run, there will come a time when you need to take your credibility and expertise and apply them to a completely new market. How can you do that and what does it take?

I had been an interpreter for about five years before I realised the power of credibility. I had based my entire marketing strategy on the premise that if I contacted enough potential clients (almost all of them agencies), I would eventually get work. And that kind of worked. Except the flow of work was slow and the process was boring.

At some point, I had the idea that I might be able to apply the work I had been doing on research and on blogging research to my own business. So, I put together a very basic wordpress site and started writing there and then shortly after, I started writing articles for magazines in my industry too.

Slowly and after a few false starts, I started to build a reputation. At the first professional conference I attended abroad, someone said they recognised me from my blog. My CV got shunted to the top of the pile by a very busy agency because one of their project managers had seen me on twitter.

The effort of creating content began to be rewarded with the benefit of being invited to speak at conferences and universities across the UK and Europe and, of course, the publication of my first book. Add to that the opportunity to do work for some new clients and I could show that I was marketing something I could actually deliver.

About eighteen months ago, I realised it was time to start the process all over again. As much as it is still fun to be recognised at conferences in my own industry, that wasn’t sufficient to help me reach the event management clients I am looking for. To do that, I was going to have to build up a reputation in their industry too!

If you are looking at doing something similar for your potential clients, there are a few stages that you will go through.

In the early days, you will have a regular fight with imposter syndrome (who am I to talk to these people?), which won’t be helped by the pile of rejections that you will get.

But that’s okay. Rejections are part of the process. Keep pitching to conferences and magazines. Keep writing content. Keep reading the magazines your clients read. Eventually, something will work. Deliver with excellence and you can go to the next stage.

If you are smart, you will leverage any success you get for all its worth. Did you get an article in a client magazine? Mention it on your website and in every single proposal. Did you get invited to do a talk? Invite potential clients to come. Did you deliver an excellent project? Use that experience to get more.

Whatever level of success you attain, it will only grow if you make the most out of it. What you learn from one experience becomes the food for the next and the audience you meet today can often help you build one tomorrow.

One last point, in all of this, it is important to be able to give some worthwhile knowledge or expertise in the process and it is vital to always deliver even better than you promise. When I chat with event managers, I don’t try to tell them how to run events, but I do try to give away some useful ideas about working more effectively with interpreters or bringing translation and interpreting together at their events. True expertise is not the knowledge that you are great but the ability to help others achieve greatness.

Keep pushing doors and adding value. It’s the best thing you can do for your business.

And, if you are an event manager looking for someone to build teams to deliver high-impact multilingual events, let’s chat.

The Importance of Small Wins

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 29, 2017

How can you keep your morale high no matter what economic waters your business finds itself sailing in? How can you demonstrate your growth and expertise to potential clients without talking about the same assignments and achievements over and over again or worse, sounding like an arrogant blowhard?

 

The answer is simple.

 

In a word full of Instagram moments and paid ads, make sure you let yourself celebrate small wins.

 

Here’s a straightforward example. As you might have read, I have started getting articles placed in the magazines read by my clients, which is itself part of a wider marketing strategy. Now, I could get all upset that so far, this has only landed me one new client and one project or I could get really excited that it has already landed me one new client and one project.

 

More to the point, before I even got to writing for Flybe’s inflight magazine, I got some wins in places like Executive Secretary magazine, the blog of Conference News and on the Eventopedia website (three times). Again, with each article, I could have decided to focus on the big goal I wanted to hit or I could decide to make the most of the small win I already had and do an incredible job at that level.

 

Small wins are a vital part of doing business. Almost no one goes straight from graduation to being a superstar entrepreneur or a successful interpreter or event manager. That might sound discouraging … unless you realise that your route from where you are to the destination you want to reach will go through lots of small wins.

 

There are still some clients that I want to add to my portfolio but the truth is that the route to landing them will include celebrating and making the most of the small wins – the projects of various sizes for various clients that I get this week.

 

Your twitter and LinkedIn feeds are most likely filled to the brim with people doing big important things with big important people. If you can’t find ways to celebrate the project on your plate right now, you might find yourself battling with self-doubt and on the verge of giving up.

 

So here’s a solution I would like you to try. I am going to push this post as far and wide as I can and I want you to do the same. But with a twist. Each time you send this article to someone or post it on any social media platform, I want you to find one small win you can celebrate and tag it with #mysmallwin. Even better, make sure you celebrate with someone else too.

 

So what’s your small win? What little thing is going right today? What interesting project is on your desk right now? Have you had a response from a client you have been chasing? Share your small win with others and see how those small wins add up to big changes.

Avoid these 3 Mistakes When Running International Events

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 17, 2017

If you are new to managing international events, they can often be daunting. Imagine taking all the work you do for a national conference or company team building event and trebling it … and then adding in international flights, wide differences in expectations, and invisible cultural norms that you might not be aware of.

With all that complexity before you even start, it can be tempting to look for any shortcuts you can find, especially when it comes to the relatively easy-looking job of selecting suppliers. Yet this is often where things go horribly wrong. Here are my top three mistakes that event managers can make when managing an international event for the first time.

  1. Pushing price or location over quality

We all know the story: the client has a strict budget and wants to reduce “frivolous” expenses like travel costs so they pressure you into hiring local and cheap.

Now, to be fair, I have already written here that, in some cities, there is a real virtue in hiring local. If your event happens to be in a graphic design hub or if your conference is being hosted in a boom town for hospitality staff, by all means stay local. But none of this can ever come at the cost of quality.

On one project, I decided against using my preferred specialist AV supplier and instead worked with the end client to get quotes from two local suppliers. I would soon regret that when I saw the equipment they provided! I would regret it even more when the interpreters and audience had to fight through two days of sound quality issues.

It is never worth sacrificing quality for cost. Excellent quality might cost more upfront but cheap costs more to fix when it inevitably goes wrong.

  1. Only Designing for One Audience

Of course, every event includes different groups with their own requirements and needs but when it comes to international events, complexity increases dramatically. Let’s contrast a couple of examples to see how this plays out.

For an internal company briefing, professional conference organisers need to take into account the company’s personality and style and the types of venues and food that attendees are used to. It is very likely that most of the attendees will have been at a similar event before and will be able to guess a lot of the agenda before they even receive it. As an event manager, your job is simply to make sure that the event works for a single audience: those who already understand internal norms and procedures and are familiar with how the company works.

Run the same event but invite delegates from seven countries, speaking three languages and the situation changes dramatically. They will come with different expectations as to how the meeting will run and may  wish to have information in their language before they arrive. Unless you have a plan to manage that or an expert on hand, the event could turn sour very quickly.

When you manage an international event, you have to make sure it works for every audience in the room.

  1. Doing it all yourself

I have found that each stage of my business growth has meant finding another set of experts to learn from. The same is true when you move from arranging monolingual, national events to managing international events.

Your new best friends will be country experts and consultant interpreters. Country experts are an invaluable source of knowledge of cultural norms and expectations; consultant interpreters build teams and make informed decisions to ensure that communication works no matter which language someone speaks. And, if you ask them nicely, some consultant interpreters will do the same for written communications like brochures and email campaigns.

Wherever you are on your event management journey, working with specialists such as consultant interpreters will help you create events that deliver more value for your clients.

Choose quality over price, design for every audience and work with specialists: three choices with one outcome: incredible international events.

Whose World do you Live In?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 13, 2017

It is always tempting to stay around people like you. Interpreters like the comfort of being around other interpreters. Events managers like events for event managers.

 

But there is a limit on the amount of work that comes from there. People like you do the same work as you and so, unless they are routinely generating more than they can handle, they won’t be hiring you any time soon, at least not regularly enough to matter.

 

Your clients will likely not make an appearance at events for your sector. They will be behaving exactly the same way as you do – spending time with their people, occasionally popping their heads over the parapet to find a supplier of some specialist service.

 

So if you want to find clients, you need to be in their space, not yours. And the best thing about being in their space is that if you are surrounded by 1000 potential clients, it doesn’t matter if 950 aren’t interested in what you do. In fact, even 995 ‘no’ responses might be okay since the work from those 5 clients who say ‘yes’ will more than pay back any investment you made to get there.

 

And if you don’t want to go out and meet clients on their turf, don’t worry, I am sure your competitors will be there. Just don’t count on their success being much good to you.

Doing Great Marketing? Then #BackItUp

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 17, 2017

If your marketing budget is greater than your CPD budget, you have a problem

As is probably clear from all the posts on working with a CRM, pitching and writing for clients, I have been on a marketing binge so far this year and it is really paying off. I have caught the attention of new clients and have projects in various stages of being booked in. But it’s not enough to have great marketing; you have to #BackItUp with exceptional delivery.

 

By #BackItUp, I don’t mean having copies of your data stored in lots of places, as good an idea as that is. I mean that every hour spent on marketing needs to be supported by an hour spent on improving practice, especially since no one grows accidentally.

 

You can sell yourself as a premium provider all you like but if you deliver services that are more akin to the stuff you might buy out of someone’s car boot on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, you will hit a problem. The most powerful form of marketing is still recommendations and people will soon know whether you are as good as you claim to be.

 

Why do we think that some companies have massive rates of client turnover? If their marketing is good but they aren’t paying enough to work with great people, clients soon find out and look elsewhere. Whether you are an event interpreter, equipment supplier or events management company, if your marketing budget is greater than your CPD budget, you have a problem.

 

Since I am a French to English and English to French and conference interpreter based in Edinburgh, I absolutely have to be pushing my language and interpreting skills on a regular basis. That means keeping up-to-date with the latest research, practising specific areas of my performance, keeping my French honed and even listening back to myself.

 

So what do you do to #BackItUp? We can all learn from each other and get great new ideas for improving our practice. Why not share this post, alongside how you work on your skills and add the #BackItUp hashtag? Marketing is great but what we all need to #BackItUp.