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The Danger of Single Example Learning

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 17, 2016

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At most events I have been to, I have observed the same pattern. The speakers who get the best reaction from the audience are the ones who speak from their own experience and tell great stories. As a professional speaker myself, I know that this is completely normal and there is a lot to be said for this approach. As a researcher and events professional, however, part of me wonders whether we might be setting ourselves up for a fall.

 

To understand the danger of learning from the experience of one person, we need to understand a very basic research concept. If you want to research a phenomenon, there are two broad approaches. The first is to look really deeply into one particular example.

 

The advantage of this approach is that you can draw a wealth of information and can uncover insights that would simply not be visible any other way. A really good example is that of a researcher friend of mine, Jiqing Dong, who looked at communication inside a single interpreting agency. The depth of her analysis is incredible and it offers some amazing food for thought.

 

The disadvantage of going deep is that you can never be sure that you have found something that is valid in any other situation. Sure, you might discover the secrets behind this single event drawing crowds of thousands but how do you know that those same secrets will work for you or anyone else?

 

An alternative approach is to look at several examples on a more superficial level. The classic example of this is a survey. Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t want ten minutes of your time to get responses on your social media habits, political affiliation, response to a website redesign or something else.

 

The advantage of going wide is precisely that, if you have done your work properly, your results will tell you something about general trends and principles that apply to a large number of cases. Researchers can and do generalise on the basis of representative surveys, which allows us to know things like the fact that the whole discussion over “what Millenials want” is a load of nonsense, as any generational differences we perceive are simply continuations of existing trends.

 

The disadvantage is, of course, that in drawing from many examples, you have to limit the amount of information you get about any one example and often, you also have to limit the range of responses. You might learn, for example, that your twitter posts get more clicks if they go out between 6 and 7pm but you won’t know what people were doing at that point or their emotional reaction to the post.

 

All this is a rather long way of saying that, if we fixate on the insights of one person and on their experience, we can fall into the trap of trying to extrapolate from their experience to our situation when the two are not at all linked. Sure, there might be a corporate conference company turning over £150 million per year but their techniques might not apply to a sole trader wedding planner.

 

Stories of “how I did it” are fun to hear and read but they might not actually give you anything more relevant to your work than a case of the warm fuzzies. Much better to gather a number of case studies of people in similar context from you and learn from a multitude of counsel. While no two examples are the same, the more we look for patterns and trends, the more we gain relevant insights into our own work

The Hidden Variables of a Visible Conference

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 7, 2016

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Great interpreters have learned to never take things at face value. The crumpled suit can be wrapped around a genius AV guy. The book that is falling apart can be a real jewel.

 

The same goes for conferences. Sure, the heading might talk about changing the world or raising the standards or whatever but most attendees might be happy to go home with a few extra business cards, some useful snippets and memories of nice meals. For interpreters, the gap between the publicity material and the real measures of success can be a source of confusion.

 

Take one assignment I had for an industry that manages and processes a raw material (no, I can’t tell you which). If I remember correctly, the conference publicity was all about the bright future of the industry and how to revolutionise it. (Odd how those things always go together.) The French delegation, however, were simply flabbergasted to have an interpreter who knew the right terms and could help them gather the data they needed to make key business decisions.

 

The strange thing that I have found both in my PhD research and in practice is that there can be a chasm between what the organisers want from a conference and what the delegates want. Actually, it’s unusual if there is perfect agreement.

 

So what’s an interpreter to do?

 

Here’s a simple case. I have a bit of Fisheries Policy work under my belt. In those meetings: the organiser wants to get a paper draft that everyone is happy with; the fishermen want as many fishing rights as they can; the scientists want clarity and precision; and the environmentalists want the fishermen to have as few rights as possible. The only workable solution I have found is to interpret in a way that keeps the communication channels open as long as possible and helps people to understand each other. Eventually, with nudges in the right place from a skilled chair, you get agreement in the end.

 

A happy room = a happy chair = good feedback to the agency = more work.

 

With the assignment I am preparing for this time, in a completely different setting, my first job is not to read every shred of paperwork but to comb the website for the purpose set out by the organisers and comb the talks for every indication of what the speakers are trying to do. And no, “inform” is not enough.

 

A finance talk might actually be saying “we are managing your money well, so keep paying your dues on time”. A tech talk might actually be a sales talk in a white coat. A case study might actually be there to show off the capabilities of an organisation, so that they gain a bit of prestige, or more funding, or both!

 

One of the skills of a successful interpreter is being able to correctly read those purposes and yet not overdo it when it comes to actually interpreting. We might be wrong, after all. However expert our preparation, it has to be subject to our skill in reading the room and understanding in real-time what is really going on.

 

It’s all about context

Interpreting researchers never get bored of letting people know that meaning is dependent on context. The chair saying, “I think it’s time we moved on” means something entirely different if someone is asking a rambling question than it does if everyone is excitedly engaging with the speaker. And those two meanings can and should lead to the interpreter saying entirely different things.

 

Among other business duties, today is the day I will really dig into all that and take an initial view of what the conference is actually for and what will put a smile on the faces of those there.

Making Academia Accessible

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 6, 2011

Ask a hundred translators what would improve their work or make it easier and I am sure that very few would suggest that “better access to the latest translation research” might do the trick. Yet, there is a growing body of work that could do just that.

Work on the use of corpora (think translation memories and parallel texts) is improving our understanding on how translators can and do use existing texts to improve their work. Work on expertise is teaching us more on how translators and interpreters can improve their skills. Work on ethics is helping us to gradually look for routes through the minefield of translation and interpreting decisions. Work on client expectations is giving us new insight into what clients want and how that relates to the brief they give you and the job you take on. The list goes on.

On the other hand, it’s not as if those outside the ivory tower are failing to think carefully about their work either. Debates rage about the effects of globalisation, technology and marketing strategies on our work. Professional journals and magazines show that there is a growing interest in understanding our work above and beyond the level of typing a sentence into a TM and hitting enter.

As has been mentioned elsewhere, the problem doesn’t actually seem to be that there isn’t academic work out there that might be of interest to translators and interpreters but that it is not always accessible to them. How many of those who chip away at the wordface each day would ever consider subscribing to an academic journal? How many academics purposefully ensure that they present at least some of their work to practising professionals?

If the ivory tower is going to affect the wordface (and what good is research if noone ever uses it?) then perhaps some subtle shifts are needed. On a purely pragmatic level, the world of academia and the professional world need to learn to speak the same language. Outside of a few journals, noone calls their clients “commissioners.” Similarly, I have yet to read an academic paper on payment practices.

For academics, the challenge then is to “sell” their work to the profession in a way that aligns nicely with professionals’ everyday concerns. For freelancers and agencies, there is the arguably tougher challenge of making some kind of headway into existing research to ensure that all their hard work isn’t simply a reinvention of the wheel. Believe it or not, many of the issues the freelancers face, from status to ethics to CPD, have already been the subject of academic enquiry. It will surely pay to find out what has been achieved so far.

There are, of course, a growing number of academics who continue to translate and interpret – a position which leaves them ideally placed to build bridges between the two worlds. With one foot in either camp, these “practisearchers” (to borrow a term from Daniel Gile) can and do serve as mediators, or even interpreters. They instinctively know both “languages” and understand the concerns of both worlds.

Perhaps then the ivory tower isn’t a tower at all. Research isn’t and needn’t be entirely separate from the cut and thrust of professional life. Now, if only everyone understood that…