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The End of Face-to-Face Events?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 1, 2016

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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

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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.