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Category Archives: Interpreting

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.

Why I Only Offer On-site Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 12, 2017

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.

Make it Work

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 14, 2017

Recently, one of my very first clients came back to me after a break of several years. The work was as tricky and as interesting as ever but now I had a lot more confidence in my own abilities.

 

With one translation – a CV – I asked permission to omit sections that would be legally uncomfortable for both the end client and anyone reading the CV. They were also entirely unnecessary and irrelevant for the job. What did my client say?

 

“Of course, please take out the unnecessary parts to make it work.”

 

Make it work. That’s what our clients really need us to do. Making it work means being more than a walking or typing dictionary. It means knowing more than where to find the French for “spinneret” or the Spanish for “left-handed wedge sprocket”. It means caring about and knowing about the end result. It means understanding the processes that the document or meeting will be part of and making sure that your document of meeting will work for that purpose.

 

This is why accuracy matters – because without the right kind of accuracy, nothing will work.

 

This is why partnership and transparency is a much more useful set of concepts than “neutrality” or even “impartiality”. Interpreters and translators are always intimately linked with the work they produce. Our skills and personality and expertise shine through and we absolutely should care deeply that what we produce works for everyone involved. We are never truly neutral. We are always involved.

 

Make it work. It’s not a theory or a philosophy; it’s the basic standard of all real professional translation and interpreting.

Interpreters don’t need any more platforms

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 14, 2017

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At least twice a year, the world of interpreting is bombarded with another “solution provider” offering a game-changing idea that will revolutionise the industry… only to vanish in a puff of smoke. Why is the industry still dominated by the same few players? Why do the game-changers often turn out to be nothing more than a momentary distraction? 

The most common reason that new platforms make a big splash and then sink into obscurity is simply that, in many cases, the inventors either have little industry knowledge or try to solve a problem for which a good, but not perfect solution exists.

Take telephone interpreting. It would really take something special to knock the likes of Language Line off their perch, simply because the largest uses of that form of interpreting are markets where multi-year, exclusive supplier contracts rule the day. To win there, you need to be a technology provider, agency, quality manager and telecoms company all at once.

Then there is the rash of providers looking to provide human interpreting via an app, usually for ad hoc work. This is basically the telephone interpreting market but with less status and so recruiting interpreters means either paying professional rates to try to attract experts and running razor thin margins or going for “bilinguals” and sacrificing quality and hoping clients won’t notice.

It is pretty obvious then that “Interpreting via app” is not the cash cow that it looks like. Building another platform is a pretty risky way of trying to make money, especially since more and more interpreters are looking to win their own clients anyway.

Of course, there are a lot of new potential markets, such as webinar interpreting and remote interpreting for hospitals. However, in those cases, once again, just being a platform provider is not enough. Clients seem to want solution providers in those market to provide both the tech and the specialist interpreters to use it. And that is something you can only do if you already know the industry well.

So what should you try if you want to make money from the interpreting industry? By far the best course of action would be to tune into what the upper end of the market is doing, since the mid- and bulk-markets are already so competitive. Tech that improves interpreter workflows, such as automated term extraction, easier billing and payment management, slicker terminology apps and travel management will always be popular. There is also a need for specific CRM tools for the industry that link to client-specific term lists and ways of tracking practice. Add to that the need to service the needs of new tech-driven markets and there is enough space for a whole world of new providers.

There is huge potential for developers to create something of real value… just don’t make another over-hyped platform, OK?

4 Ways to Find Conference Interpreters for your Event

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 28, 2017

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Finding the right interpreter can be daunting. It doesn’t get much easier once you narrow things down from all interpreters to just conference interpreters either. But, thankfully, there are ways to simplify the process. Here are my top 4 tips.

 

  • Be really specific in what you are looking for.

 

Yes, it sounds obvious but it is actually incredibly frequent to see potential clients search for a “translator” when they need an “interpreter” or even look for “simultaneous translators” and wonder why they just seem to get big agencies.

 

Right from the outset, it helps to know that interpreters deal with spoken or signed languages and translators deal with written languages. Next up, it is useful to remember that different types of event require different types of interpreters.

 

Are you hosting or organising a multilingual conference or product launch? Track down a conference interpreter. Do you have a business meeting to hammer out a new contract? You will need a business interpreter or a business negotiation interpreter. Looking for someone to help with a court case? You will need a court interpreter.

 

The more specific you are, the better your chances of finding the right interpreter from the outset. While some interpreters cover more than one field, you will always be better finding someone who has experience in the type of event you are running.

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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.

4 Keys when Changing Event Interpreting Suppliers

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 2, 2017

If you have been organising international events for a while, you will know that there is a wide range of different event interpreting services, from big agencies, to individual interpreters. You will also know that getting the right interpreters for your conference is a vital part of making sure that the whole event works for every attendee. Here then are 4 issues you should bear in mind whenever you are changing interpreting suppliers or hiring one for the first time.

 

  1. Spot the warning signs of a bad supplier

Every interpreting agency and ever consultant interpreter will have their own standard ways of doing business but a number of these internal policies are simply there to guard their interests, rather than being there for your benefit.
A prime example is that some conference interpreting suppliers will ban you and the interpreters from speaking directly before the event starts. All good event managers knows that having short lines of communication is vital for the success of any event. It is therefore worth asking yourself whether it is really in your interests to have to go through a middle-person and rely on them relaying information accurately and completely, every time you have information to pass on.

 

Every interpreter in the business will have had occasions where they could not deliver the very best service because they were not given the right information at the right time. If your supplier is insisting on keeping the contact details of your interpreters secret and refuses to even tell you which interpreters they are using until the last minute, it is worth looking elsewhere.

 

A similar red flag should be raised if it seems that you find yourself dealing with someone different each time you talk to or email your supplier. You should have a single point of contact who manages the whole process.

 

One last, and more subtle red flag, should be raised if you come across a conference interpreting supplier who is happy to give you an instant quote for any job. Sure, it might seem that it makes your life easier and saves time but it tends to be a sign of a box-ticking approach to delivering service.

 

Your event is unique. You will have specialised content, a specific audience and your own set of KPIs to fulfil. For that reason, the interpreting delivered at your event will be unique too. It makes sense then that excellent suppliers will need a little time to build the right time and put together a price that is as unique as your event.

 

  1. Understand restrictions and eliminate those that are bad for you

Even the very best interpreting suppliers will likely have some restrictive clauses in any contracts they offer. It is common to see bans on contacting conference interpreters directly for a period of time, if you chose an agency to supply them for your event. It is also not unusual for event interpreting suppliers to ask for exclusivity deals and for conference interpreting equipment suppliers to work exclusively or semi-exclusively with a single booth manufacturer.

 

None of these, on their own, are wrong but it pays to ask which ones are right for you. It may be worth asking, for instance, whether you should be able to hire interpreters directly if you liked them but weren’t pleased with how their services were managed. You also may wish to have a clause allowing you to request for a different interpreting team for future events or different equipment.

 

Remember, you are the buyer and it is up to you to decide which restrictions are worth allowing and which will get in the way of delivery.

 

  1. Understand the strengths of the three main event interpreting solutions

There are three ways to manage event interpreters. Either you locate and manage each interpreter yourself, or you call in a consultant to create and manage the team or you book through an agency. There are no wrong answers but each solution does have its pros and cons.

 

If you hire interpreters for your event directly, you get a short chain of communication and you grow to know your team really well. This is often the cheapest option too.  However, this comes at the cost of having to spend time finding interpreters and somehow checking that they are good enough and then doing the admin to pay them all!

 

Hiring a consultant gives you contact with someone whose job it is to build the team for you and who has most likely worked with most, if not all of the team before. Their prices are often cheaper than agencies. They become your single point of contact and so you still get to keep a short chain of communication, especially if, as usually happens, they are actually interpreting as well as consulting. The disadvantage is that they may not have the same coverage as an agency and so for complex jobs, an agency could be better. Their team might also be busy just at the time when you want them.

 

Of all the solutions, agencies are the best at doing large-scale jobs. Their advantage is usually found in their ability to find lots of interpreters covering lots of languages, in a short space of time. Working with an agency also means less admin and only one bill to pay for you. The price of this, however, is usually that their fees are higher and that your chain of communication is longer, increasing the risk that something will get lost along the way.

 

  1. Look for people happy to talk through your options and your situation

If all this seems confusing, it shouldn’t be. All you need is a guide who can walk through your decisions with you. Whether you chat to someone from an agency about their solutions and prices or to a consultant about your management process, it will help to have someone lead you through the process.

 

Since your situation and events are unique, it will help to find someone who is open to creating something unique for you. If you are looking at changing your interpreting provider, feel free to get in touch. I would love to guide you through the process.

 

 

Why Event Managers Should Beware of Package Deals

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 10, 2017

Great event managers are always on the lookout for ways to simplify processes. They will learn scheduling and automation tools, return to the same suppliers, and integrate technology throughout the process. Yet sometimes, that instinct for simplification can lead to poor decision-making, that is especially the case where interpreting is concerned.

Let me explain how this can happen. For many conferences, especially where interpreting is needed into more than one language, there will be a need to book soundproof interpreting booths, headsets and various microphones, as well as the interpreters themselves. Some Audio Visual equipment (AV) suppliers, having noticed that their clients want to keep things simple, now offer to supply the interpreters for free, if the events agency give them the contract for AV equipment hire.

 

It sounds like a good deal. They get a nice contract and you can tick two items off your to-do list at once. So what’s the problem?

 

The big issue with package deals like this is that they put AV suppliers in a position where the biggest potential drain on profits is the service that represents the biggest risk and greatest potential benefit to you. Your delegates probably won’t notice much of a difference between a set-up based on XLR cables versus one using CAT-5s. They will notice the difference between professionally trained and prepared interpreters and people who just learned the language on holiday.

Since the AV providers already have the equipment, payment to interpreters will be the biggest risk to their profit margins. That, in turn, can lead to them trying to find ways to save money on the interpreting itself. This is the same interpreting your clients are relying on for the meeting to be a success.

 

All professional interpreters have a minimum fee and the AV suppliers who take the package deal approach may negotiate hard to reduce these minimum fees. If you hire interpreters directly or via a reputable agency, these agencies and consultants will know that the return on investment of great interpreting is always higher than its costs. These same interpreting specialists will also know who the great interpreters are and how much it will cost to get them on board.

 

So, while package deals are tempting, it always pays to ask yourself whether such deals sacrifice quality on the altar of speed. If you want the kind of interpreting that ensures your event has the right impact, it will always pay to go to a reputable agency or an experienced consultant.

How to be More Successful in 2017

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 6, 2017

Happy New Year!

 

After an exhausting 2016, many business leaders are excited and anxious about what this year may bring. All of us hope to do better this year than last year but, despite all the tips and tricks we might read about online, we might now know how. Here are three strategies I have found to be indispensable.

 

Key 1: Define Your Own Success

 

As both a business owner and a dad, I have no shortage of people offering me their tricks and tips and must-dos. Yet what is glaringly obvious is that most people will give you advice after making the assumption that you want the same things out of life that they do.

 

If I am going to be any more successful this year than I was last year, it will mean being clear about what I mean by “successful”.  More than that, with all of us under continual time pressure, actually knowing what success looks like makes it much easier to say ‘yes’ to the right things and ‘no’ to the wrong things.

 

Since I know the types of clients I want and the kinds of marketing that seem to work for me, I know to ignore anyone selling their latest gimmick. Since I know my priorities, I can also confidently ignore anyone who says that you can’t be a success unless you work 25 hours a day and wake up at 4am, having gone to bed at 5.

 

Key 2: Prioritise Personal Growth

 

In the translation and interpreting community, 2016 was a year where there seemed to be more courses and classes and conferences on offer than ever before. In the events industry too, it seems that people are more aware of the need for Continued Professional Development than ever.

 

The simple reason for this is that every penny invested in a good source of personal and professional growth pays off. I recently read two papers where it was found that the best way to improve sales performance was to set both sales targets and targets for what you wanted to learn.

 

Given how fast technology and business practice is moving, those businesses that sell more will be those where everyone is committed to staying consistently at the top of their game.

 

For event managers, that will mean staying up to date with changes in marketing and shifts in delegate expectations while learning how to integrate new technology. For interpreters, that will mean clocking up the practice hours, diving into specialist subjects and continually honing our approaches to clients.

 

Key 3: Find a Community

 

This last one is by far the most important. Remember how people go on about SMART goals? Well it turns out that the only way they actually have a real effect is when you mix them with regular accountability.

 

In fact, the more research I read, the more important I realise that it is to make sure that you are in a community where you can be supported to grow. No matter how senior you are in your company, you will need someone to listen when times are tough … and a little push when you have started coasting.

 

No-one grows consistently on their own. This year, perhaps the greatest gift you could give your own success would be to find a group of people who are trying to be more successful too.