Integrity Languages


Category Archives: Tech

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.




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 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?

What Technology Doesn’t Do at Events

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 27, 2016

With the rise in event apps, IP telephony, webcasts, and virtual presence, it is easy to forecast that the future of events will be centred on virtual reality. In fact, if you ask many professional speakers, they will tell you that they can foresee virtual appearances becoming the new normal in their industry. But might we be in danger of overestimating precisely what technology can do or, more to the point, might we be underestimating what real presence means?


Virtual Conferences Already Exist


Take a simple example, if you are a translator or interpreter, you will have heard of This mega platform regularly holds virtual conference, complete with free webinars, virtual stands and even virtual chat.


But, as an attendee, you quickly see that something is missing. At a real conference, many of the best moments arrive unplanned. A trip from the coffee station to the toilet can lead to a conversation with a key future client. A wander in the area around the venue can mean bumping into that person you have been trying to contact by email for weeks.


That doesn’t happen virtually. At a virtual conference, everything is controlled and deliberate. In fact, it runs precisely the way that some people try to act at conferences. Every booth visit is for a particular purpose and is timed to the second, every webinar runs exactly to time. Every interaction is scripted and rich in information but low in relationship.


At a virtual conference, the currency is information. At an in-person conference, the currency is relationships.


But In-person Conferences are Still Growing


When virtual conferences exist and save a fortune on air fares, it makes you wonder why the same organisation is now turning to in-person conferences, even ramping up the number it runs. If you are an events professional trying to read future trends, the answer is absolutely vital.


In an increasingly virtual and remote world, human contact is what justifies the fees and hassle. No matter how well your conference is run, the accidental moments will often be the ones that are remembered the best. When presenters go off-script, they often sound better and connect better. When people are free to interact on their terms, the quality of the interaction is better.


Perhaps the reason for the continued rise in in-person conference is precisely the yearning for real human contact and the freedom from communication mediated by technology.


At Multilingual Events, Presence is Everything


Applying this same principle to multingual or international events means that we can see why any moves towards taking the service providers away from the conference hall will be problematic. Is it as pleasant to order your drinks at a vending machine as it is to have a real human waiter? Is automated registration as nice as picking up your badge from a smiling person at a desk?


If we answer those two questions truthfully, we will realise the biggest drawback with virtualising interpreting services too. While interpreters work with language, they work in a business that is centred on people: what people are trying to achieve, who is listening and how people are reacting.


While it is often cheaper to try to get interpreters to work remotely, it rarely leads to a flawless conference. Here again, while the technology is fascinating and just about stable enough, it loses much of the human contact that is found in the conference room


The Future?


So, the next time someone tells you that the future of events is entirely virtual, take them out for a coffee and ask them to compare that with an exchange of emails. Event technology is here to stay but its future is found in enhancing real-world interactions, rather than replacing them.

When You Should Ignore Marketing Experts

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 8, 2016

We all know that, in general, language professionals are behind the curve when it comes to marketing. CRM is an entirely new concept for most translators and interpreters and the most popular CPD courses are those that aim to enhance business and sales skills. It makes sense that we should learn from professionals whose lives are spent marketing and selling. But are there times when their ideas should be ignored?


There is one place when that is definitely the case.


Marketing Tactics Translators and Interpreters Should Not Use

Marketing gurus will commonly tell you that you need to grow your list of client contacts. That much is absolutely true. Few people will go straight from website visitor to client. Having periodic emails to keep your name and email fresh in people’s memory is a great idea if you want people to book you.


While gathering email contacts is important, some of the tactics used to gather those emails are definitely not to be recommended. Go to the website of any leading marketer and you will likely be confronted with a pop-over window asking you to sign-up for updates. The most annoying part is that often you can’t actually read anything on their page unless you manage to locate that pesky close button.


While that tactic has always been sneaky and downright annoying, it will soon be an SEO nightmare as google are going to actively punish sites that use those tactics.


Let Users See Content Quickly

From a user standpoint, those changes are long overdue. Personally, I have started to simply leave any website that asks for my email before it has given me a reason to stay. Let me see the content first and then, if the content looks good, I might sign up.


Of course, if you are giving away something substantial like an entire book, then things are different. It makes sense, in that case, to give a sample for free and then swap details for the full thing. Even here, however, you are better to create a specialist landing page than have an ugly floating pop-up. For single blog posts, let people read first and subscribe later.


Google’s changes are even good from a marketing perspective. Do we really want email addresses from people who are only typing them to get rid of a stupid window?


So, the next time you refresh your website, remember to let people get to content as quickly as possible. The more directly we communicate with clients, the more likely that are to want to work with us.

Scheduled Social Media Posting and Marketing Your Business

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 11, 2016


As a trained researcher, I am a big fan of experiments. So, nowadays, whenever I go on holiday, I queue up a whole bunch of posts using a MavSocial campaign and watch my website stats. What do you think happens?


Before I get to the results, I want to explain something for those who are social media newbies. One of the biggest decisions you will ever make when doing social media marketing is deciding what to measure.


You can measure the increase in sales but then, given the complexity of most sales funnels, it can be difficult to unpick what might have caused any change. This is made even harder by the fact that any smart business should be marketing through several channels.


For example, I use social media, writing in professional magazines for my target market, guest blogging, in-person networking, and attendance at tradeshows. None of these on their own is going to increase my sales but using them together, alongside good old client retention strategies, just might.


At the other end of the scale, you can measure how many people see your posts. The problem with this is that it’s far better to have 5 potential buyers see your stuff than 10,000 people who will never be interested in what you offer. A qualified lead in the hand is worth 5,000 likes on Twitter, as the phrase should go nowadays.


Because of that, I measure something in the middle. All of my holiday posts have links in them and I measure how often those links are clicked. The deal is that, if I can just get people to my website, I can increase the likelihood that they will buy from me. At the very least, I will have raised their awareness of my services, which is a good step to take in marketing while you are sunning yourself on the beach.


Here is the rub, whenever I post new content to my website, traffic surges and I get lots of new interactions. But, obviously, when I am on holiday, no new posts will appear. So what about when I setup automated posting of content that is already there?


The first thing I have learned is that scheduled posting of existing content will not get you the same peaks as brand new stuff. Scheduled posting simple raises the default amount of traffic. What happens is that the boost from the latest piece of new content lasts longer, with traffic not returning back to normal until the schedule runs out of posts. Visit rates sit at between two and five times their default levels right up to the end of the schedule.


Strangely, both social and direct traffic numbers increase markedly during scheduled posting. It may be that scheduled posting encourages people to bookmark articles, which they come back to later.


In short, while having a schedule for reposting existing articles won’t give you the same pleasing peaks as regularly creating new and exciting content, it will encourage more background traffic to your site.

Do Webinars Work?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 10, 2016

They have become ubiquitous in most industries. The ease with which we can now beam live audio and video over large distances has led to an explosion in online training in the form of webinars, MOOCs and other online courses. Sure, organisations like Open University have been harnessing that kind of technology for years but the number of providers continues to grow almost exponentially.


But wait, have we ever sat down and had a serious conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of this way of learning? Sure, we all know about the fact that webinars make it possible to learn wherever you are and they seem to democratise access to knowledge but are they actually effective?


I am sure that, even by asking that question, I am tacitly inviting providers to slap me round the head with satisfaction statistics and stories of happy clients. As someone who has created webinars myself, I am not about to gnaw on a hand that fed me but still, we would be wise to be cautious.


When I went through my training as a university lecturer, we were introduced to the idea that there are such things as deep and surface learning. Surface learning is the name given to the (temporary) memorisation of facts and figures, such that you can regurgitate them later. Deep learning is when the knowledge becomes part of you and makes an actual, lasting difference.


If you take Marta Stelmaszak’s Business School for Translators, for example, surface learning might involve writing a marketing plan or thinking for a few minutes about your business strategy. Deep learning would be applying it each day to your work.


My fear is that the very setup of webinars, which very much resemble old-style university lectures, encourage short-term, surface learning. Just like those leading university lectures, webinar leaders can and do encourage deep learning by setting exercises and offering individualised feedback. But, in my experience, this kind of involvement is still all too rare. The more common (although thankfully, not universal) model is for the webinar to stand alone as a unit with very little in the way of support or monitoring before, during or after.


Universities have learned that the traditional model of an “expert” taking for an hour while a group of novitiates sit and take notes is not exactly the most effective way of teaching. People seem to learn better when they are involved in the process and get a chance to apply their knowledge as soon as possible.


Do webinars allow this? How often do those attending a webinar lose focus and browse cat pictures in another tab?


At the very least, I think it is time to have open honest conversations about what webinars can and can’t do and where in-person teaching, as expensive as it can be, is the best option. Oddly enough, it’s a lesson that even the old-hands at Open University have learned, as they combine multimedia, online learning with a few choice sessions, in-person with a tutor and the rest of the class.


I don’t pretend to know all the answers and even writing this has opened more questions than answers in my head. The whole area is crying out for research and for providers to think beyond the kinds of questions found in a satisfaction survey.


I do know that, for now at least, I want to concentrate on in-person courses both in the CPD I deliver and in the CPD I attend. As an interpreter, I know that there is something about being there in the room with other learners and with an experienced tutor that you simply don’t get from a webinar. It is even better when you are learning alongside your clients and growing with them too. This is not denying that webinars have their place;  yet I do wonder whether we need to rethink the format.

The End of Face-to-Face Events?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 1, 2016


It’s every tech nerd’s dream and most event managers’ nightmare. With increasing environmental concern and ever-improving technology, might the days of face-to-face events be numbered? Now that internet speeds are (mostly) at the point where we can have video chats without our faces looking like a seven-year-old’s Minecraft creation, is there any sense in hiring expensive rooms, flying halfway across Europe and meeting together for a few days, before jetting off home again?

Ironically, I am writing this as I do the preparatory work for my trip to The Meetings Show in the London Olympia as a visitor. Since I live in Edinburgh, this has meant arranging travel and deciding whether to stay overnight. Yet the very fact I have decided that it is worth the rigmarole of checking-in, going through security, avoiding the ladies in the Duty Free (thanks for so kindly making us walk all the way through that, Edinburgh Airport!) and finding the gate, is part of the answer.

The short answer to the future of face-to-face events was one given by Prof. Barry Olsen during a podcast I recorded with him and Alexander Drechsel on remote interpreting. His take? “Face-to-face events will only end when someone finds a way for people to drink beer virtually.”

And that’s pretty much it. What you get in person is precisely the feeling of being there in person. It’s the ability to have a relaxed chat with potential clients over coffee, the opportunity for a chance encounter with an industry leader, the networking that accidentally happens when you flop onto a seat next to someone charging their phone (true story!)…

We all know that it is important to simply be there. If that is true then why is so much of our tech about automation and reducing the input of people? Geo-beacons send people content based on where they happen to be standing; event registration tools let people sign up and collect their badge without talking to anyone; livestreaming beams the content to people on another continent; remote interpreting further separates the speaker from the people whose voices will captivate a large section of the audience.

For meetings to reach their full potential, they need to be human. For interpreting to give the maximum value, the interpreters need to be drinking the same excitement and atmosphere as everyone else.

Event tech is great and remote interpreting has its uses but, the more we realise the true value of face-to-face events, the more we realise that the experience of being in the same room is at the heart of what we do. Great events put people at their centre and make networking and sharing core to the whole experience. Tech is great but connection is still king.

Will Computers Replace Interpreters?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 20, 2016


Hardly a month goes by without another tech company promising to provide automated, flawless person-to-person “instant translation”. We have seen Skype Translator, NTT Docomo and a parade of over-hyped headsets – none of which actually did anything that impressive.

The latest in the line is Waverly Labs “Pilot earbuds”, which sounds remarkably like every other attempt to replace interpreters – listen to what is said, run it through an online Machine Translation engine, run the result through a speech synthesiser. Hey presto, you’re done!

In theory, it should work well. In fact, if interpreting was all about transferring words or ideas between languages, there would be no particular reason why computers could not, eventually, take over. Contrary to popular belief, computers are actually making great strides in understanding strips of language and matching them with common ways of expressing the same idea in another language.

But it takes all of ten minutes at a conference or doctor’s appointment or even in a library to see that language transfer is only one part of interpreting. Here are some common examples of what interpreters actually do.

  • In hospital appointments, wherever cultural differences are causing a problem, interpreters spot the issue and communicate what clients are saying in a way that that is relevant and faithful but will keep things moving in the right direction.
  • In mental health settings, interpreters offer professionals the information that they would instantly know if the patient spoke their language but can’t perceive when there is a language difference.
  • In conferences, interpreters notice when speakers are being accidentally offensive, take into account what they were trying to achieve and create a version that does what they want, without the offense.
  • In business negotiations, interpreters take into account that interpreting will lengthen proceedings and make people forget important information so they shape what they say to make the negotiations as effective as possible.

While it might appear that interpreting is a language job, with people attached; just a little experience teaches us that it is actually a people skill with language attached. Interpreters read the intentions of the speaker, manage interaction, take into account audience reaction, build rapport, explain cultural difference and  more.

Yes, interpreters deal with language but they quickly realise that the language is almost always wrapped up in layer upon layer of social, cultural, and political complexity. Those are the layers that only a human can understand and, when it comes to the kinds of meetings where interpreters usually work, finding a route through those layers is the only way the event to work.

In truth, the kinds of work that will be taken over by computers are the kinds of work where we have traditionally relied on phrasebooks, dictionaries and, yes, online machine translation engines like google translate. We should all be glad to have computers and headsets to make it easier for us to ask for a beer, get directions to the nearest hospital and figure out what that tweet from your French-speaking colleague was about.

Frankly, using professional interpreters (or translators) in those situations would be a colossal waste of resources. Far better to use them in situations where getting it right will make the difference between life and death, negotiation and division, profit and loss. Machine translation is great and we are still testing its limits but, when it comes to bringing people together you can’t beat, well, people. And if you want people who know how to cut through the jungle of cultural and social differences, you want interpreters.

Using Apps for Multilingual Events

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 23, 2014

There is a familiar refrain. “In [5, 10, 20] years we won’t need translators or interpreters. Computers will do it all.” Following that logic, thousands of apps have popped up to allow delegates to access seamless, automatic translation of just about anything to do with your event. Might they make interpreters a thing of the past?


The potential and limits of machine translation are a topic I have written about before. There is simply no sense in either dismissing machine translation (MT) as useless or pretending that it will be the universal, cheap solution for your event. We need a more informed approach.


Can machine translation take over your event?

Let’s start with the basics: translation apps will not produce perfect communications. The vagaries of human language mean that machines will always have it tough. This is especially the case given that today’s best MT engines (the bit that actually does the translation) rely on big databases of language to help them in their work. If your conference includes themes covered by those databases, the results might be pretty good. If, however, you have a conference on a niche topic or one that is subject to secrecy, your translation apps will struggle.


Actually, that brings me to a little discussed issue with some of the main MT providers. Take Google Translate, for instance, the most widely used engine. You might not be aware that anything submitted to them, either directly or via an app, is used as part of their continuous improvement programme. Put another way, any data that is sent to them for translation becomes their data for them to use how they wish. That should give you pause for thought.


What translation apps are good for and what they can’t do

Translation apps will therefore never produce human quality and some of them will have privacy issues, depending on the machine translation engines they use. This does not mean that they are useless. For straightforward, low risk communication that has no confidentiality issues, apps are helpful. Pre-meeting chats to arrange meet-ups, talk about local sightseeing opportunities and provide short snippets of information are the kind of thing that apps can deliver reasonably well.


When it comes to high quality, high risk communication, however, humans will always be the best option. This is especially the case for the top level of conference communication: the plenary talk or seminar. Here, you have speakers who have spent hours on what they want to say and how they want to say it. They are bringing their expertise and skills to the table and their presence is often a big attraction for delegates. They have put the work in; they expect you will too!


Why you still need human interpreters

While it might be tempting to think that one day people will open an app and listen to a perfect version of the talk produced by their smart phone, it isn’t even near the horizon. Despite the giant leaps made by speech recognition and machine translation, even the very best combinations of these two can only produce something that will just about manage to allow you to find a nearby restaurant. They are nowhere near wowing an audience.


For that, you need professional conference interpreters. People who don’t just understand languages but understand how speeches work. You need people who are committed to making sure your event is a success and who understand the need for partnership and trust. If you read my post last week, you will see where I am going.


Yes, apps are great and have real potential but the presence of human interpreters will still be the mark of a high-end conference for years to come. They are necessary for the same reason that hotels need reception staff, medical treatment is still given by human doctors and people go to conferences when they can get so much information online. The human touch doesn’t just mean a friendlier service but a more personalised, welcoming service. Computers are great and smartphones are powerful but in the end, when quality matters and impressions count, it always pays to go for the human option.