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The Problem with Remote Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 20, 2018

[note from the writer]It’s quite rare these days for me to write a post that is not explicitly aimed at potential clients. This one is an exception, although there are lots of things for clients to chew over. All opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.

By the time you read this, the interpreting industry will have had some time to digest the latest move from the leading remote interpreting platforms. We have had product releases and demos, we have had assurances and articles telling us that we had all better sign up now! Now! No, right now! Why haven’t you signed up to be assimilated yet!? Resistance is futile!

And now, in the latest development, which means not much to anyone who isn’t an interpreter, we have the creation of the Interpreting Technologies Alliance (ITA). According to its own website and this press release via Common Sense Advisory, ITA represents a decision by the major Interpreting Delivery Platform providers (that remote interpreting companies to you and me) to work together on “to raise the visibility and credibility of emerging solutions such as remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) and amplify the presence of interpreting technology in the business community.” That would be marketing and PR then.

There is also a kind of entente agreed between the companies. Here’s another quote from the CSA PR piece:

The six companies agreed to set aside some of the micro differences between their products and interests and instead focus on the common good of pooling resources to develop new market segments. Their main activities will be to jointly engage the private sector and showcase interpreting use cases at industry events and through trade and social media. They also plan a series of joint campaigns to standardize terminology, increase professionalism, educate the market, and raise the capacity of language professionals to meet the needs of the private sector.

On the one hand, it is good to see companies setting aside any rivalries for the greater good but the whole thing opens a few important questions.

First off, why are only technology providers at the table? If the idea is to professionalise the way remote interpreting is delivered (good idea!) and to showcase its uses (again, good idea!) wouldn’t it be good to, you know have some interpreters involved who aren’t on the payroll of any of the big platforms? Or even to invite professionals associations to engage?

The second big question is what exactly is meant by “raise the capacity of language professionals to meet the needs of the private sector”. Since, to quote CSA again remote interpreting has “suffered from a mismatch between product solutions and actual market demand” how do we know that they know any better than currently active interpreters about “meeting the needs of the private sector?” And hold on, aren’t interpreters already doing that and educating each other about that?

The point is that the founding of ITA and its press release so far have simply underlined the longest-standing problem with remote interpreting – it has always been good about generating publicity but its engagement with the supply side, the interpreters, has been patchy. Some companies have done well enough, others have completely missed the boat.

Despite years of development, no-one can say for sure whether remote interpreting is good or bad for quality, good or bad for interpreter physical health, good or bad for interpreter mental health and good or bad for interpreting revenues. That is the main and maybe even the sole message of AIIC’s new position on remote interpreting. We already have burnout issues. Psychologists know that social isolation is a contributing factor to poor mental health outcomes. Might remote interpreting make things even worse? The answer is: we don’t know.

Research on interpreting since the 1990s has shown that in-person interpreted situations across all forms of interpreting are dynamic social environments where interpreters react in real-time to what is said and done. Might remote interpreting break that link and reduce real quality and outcomes? We don’t know.

With unanswered questions like those on the one side and the attempts at shiny PR image-making from remote interpreting tech providers on the other, it is no surprise that many interpreters are sceptical about remote, or at least sceptical about the future of remote interpreting promoted by its most ardent fans.

That’s why, if you get the more astute remote interpreting promoters in a corner and ask them quietly what their biggest challenge is right now, they will tell you that it is still very hard to get experienced, excellent interpreters to sign up. Yes, you get some cheery early adopters. Yes, you can do nice demos. But still, the biggest tension in remote interpreting is on the supply side, not the demand side.

The biggest problem with remote interpreting is interpreters. The tech can be as wonderful as you like. You can even do as much PR and marketing as you like but if you can’t get enough expert interpreters onside, it won’t work. And right now, many experienced expert interpreters are sitting on the fence about remote interpreting, if not swearing off it altogether, at least for settings where we currently work in person. Sadly, the creation of ITA and some of the rather unfortunate language around it has not made things any better.

For remote interpreting clients, the biggest danger will be that the supplier can’t find the high quality interpreter that they need. For remote interpreting platform providers, there will always be a tension between wanting to become a platform that supplies everything, including the interpreters (and thereby appearing like just another agency to interpreters and alienating those who want to get their own clients) and being the platform interpreters choose to use themselves (and thereby making it harder to sell to clients directly).

If the focus of ITA is really driving up standards in remote interpreting and ensuring that the interpreting provided is of high quality, the priority has to be knowledge and real partnership, above fancy stands at tradeshows. Invite interpreting associations to send a “lay member” or three to your board. Fund research that generates real, empirically validated data on the things that matter about remote interpreting. Work with mental health experts on preparing interpreters for the shift you see coming.

Please, for goodness sake, do something more than PR and marketing. The profession deserves much, much more than that!

 

Donald Trump, Uber and the Rediscovery of Responsibility

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 22, 2017

Two stories have dominated my newsfeed over the past few days. In the first, Iranian interpreter, Nima Chitzas defended his choice to omit some content from a speech delivered by President Donald Trump at the United Nations. In the second, Transport for London has failed to renew Uber’s license to operate in the city.

As different as the two stories might be, they have one theme in common: responsibility.

In the first case, the interpreter’s justification of his decision is as interesting as the decision itself. His argument was that he could not relay content that he felt was untruthful and “against Iran”. In his mind, his responsibility to the “truth” outweighed any professional code of conduct that requires complete and impartial interpreting.

In the second case, as much as people are criticising the decision not to renew Uber’s license to operate, the grounds named by Transport for London in their decision seem to show that, for them, it was simply a matter of upholding existing licensing laws. From their point of view, any company that doesn’t play by the rules, doesn’t get to play the game. Being responsible in that case simply meant respecting the systems and regulations already in place, no matter how much of a disruptor you might want to be.

Whether we agree with either of those decisions, they remind us that every decision has consequences. Even the default “say everything” position upheld by many interpreters has consequences. Sometimes giving an unfiltered view of what was said can have direct and immediate consequences. We need only read a few accounts of the fate of warzone interpreters to learn that.

At other times, interpreters may have to stand up and defend their choice to do anything apart from presenting a close version of what the speaker said. No matter what we might think of Mr Chitzas, he stood up and took responsibility for his actions. We may not agree with his actions but by offering a justification, at least we can now understand the reasoning behind them.

Similarly, the Uber decision seems to be nothing more than the latest in series of long-running battles between those who want to disrupt industries by relying on increasingly casual and flexible labour and those who see this as a removal of workers’ rights. The very point of labour and employment law is to make sure that companies treat their staff responsibly. This responsibility is needed more than ever in the growing “gig economy.”

But what does this mean for businesses like event managers and interpreters?

No matter which sector we are in, we can never forget that technology does not erase the need for responsibility; it heightens it. We can disrupt all we like but we have to disrupt while respecting those already in the industry and while treating our colleagues, competitors and suppliers as valued partners.

This means that we need to understand the effects our actions have on others, whether positive or negative. It means being sympathetic to those who might lose out. It means being prepared to defend our decisions.  Our words, our decisions, and our business practices will inevitably make a difference to someone. Are we ready to carry that responsibility?

 

 

Here’s a Brand New Course to Improve Your Public Speaking

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 3, 2017

There is nothing that comes close to the impact of delivering a talk that wows an audience. There is no better way to make people take notice of your business, believe your results or give you a promotion. Yet public speaking is regularly listed among our worst fears. It’s time that ended.

 

For the past month, I have been working on a course covering the four basic building blocks of public speaking:

  • Content that carries the message you want to deliver
  • Communication that brings understanding and encourages change
  • Connection that makes you believable and relatable
  • Creativity that creates moments that people remember when they go home.

 

Those are the four building blocks that I have been teaching around Europe in my popular Public Speaking Workshop for the past two years. This has honed my presentation and allowed me to answer the big questions that people have about speaking. And now, I have gathered the very best content from that workshop and turned it into a four part course with videos, podcasts, FAQ sheets and a mini-guide for those who are new to speaking.

Until 9th August, 2017 the course is on offer at a bargain price of £29.99 for fifty minutes of video teaching, almost an hour of downloadable podcasts and all the other help sheets. Whatever your business, you will find that improving your public speaking gives you a noticeable boost and this course is there to do exactly that.

 

To find out more or to buy the course right now, simple go here: https://integrity-languages-courses.thinkific.com/courses/public-speaking-building-blocks

 

 

 

 

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?

Why Community Counts

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 9, 2016

Millions of people are waking up to election results they did not expect and did not want. Others are waking bleary-eyed in disbelief that the result they wanted but seemed out of reach is here. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, there is change in the air and it will take courage and creativity to navigate it. But it will also take community.

 

Beyond “Community” as a Buzzword

 

For the past few years, social media has turned the word “community” into a buzzword. We have gaming communities, interpreting communities, communities of practice, the events community and more besides. In the face of technology that could lead to us living in individual shacks, communicating with nothing but smartphones and Wi-Fi, there is a desperate cry for meaningful, in-person relationships.

 

That is why community is such a hot topic right now. In the face of isolation, xenophobia, breakdowns in understanding and mistrust, there is something refreshing about being in the same room as a fellow human being. When we get to the point that we can be real and communicate without soundbites or tweets, we begin to realise that we are all still humans, from the newest president to the poorest worker.

 

The Price of Community is Vulnerability

 

But the price of community is vulnerability and vulnerability is not something our technologies are built to handle. Steven Furtick reminds us that we can often compare our real-life to the highlight reels that people project onto social media. Online, there is always a message to get across. In-person, there is just us.

 

The kinds of communities we need cut across the traditional racial or class or political barriers. Perhaps the reason why recent political decisions in the UK and US alike have come as such a surprise is that our technologies and platforms, from Twitter and Facebook to LinkedIn and Snapchat, encourage us to congregate in groups of the like-minded. In that environment, we only really hear the voices of people like us. In these echo chambers, we become convince that the whole world thinks like us. And then we get a short, sharp shock when it doesn’t work that way.

 

Diversity in Community

 

Some of the most valuable communities are those where people come from different walks of life, hold different political and ideological views but still choose to walk together.  I have been on boards of directors where there were disagreements but strong decisions were made. I have been in churches where people who originated from different countries and continents broke bread and laughed together.

 

If you have got this far and wonder why this is on a business blog, I have a simple answer. If we want our meetings to succeed, we need to build communities not just teams. If we want conferences to have a lasting impact, they need to help kick-start or maintain diverse communities. What if you managed to create an event that knocked-down the echo chambers, the class distinctions and the political fear and brought people together to learn from those who speak a wide variety of languages?

News: Edinburgh Conference Interpreter Scoops Three International Awards!

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 7, 2016

I am incredibly honoured and privileged to have won three (!) awards at this year’s Proz.com Community Choice Awards.

 

These annual awards are nominated and voted by members of the ProZ.com community, the world’s largest community for the Translation and Interpreting industries, with over 300,000 members worldwide.

 

This year, I was amazed to win three awards in the “Interpreting” section. These are:

 

Best Twitter (for my @integlangsbiz account)

Best Book for: Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence (Routledge, 2016)

and

Best Conference Speaker.

 

The past twelve months have been momentous for me both as a conference interpreter and as a researcher. Since this time in 2015, in those two areas alone, I have:

 

 

Needless to say, none of this could have happened without the support of clients, friends, family (including our eight month old, newest arrival), supervisors and colleagues. The world of conference interpreting and interpreting in general is an incredibly supportive one and it is my pleasure and honour to be part of it.