Integrity Languages


Monthly Archives: September 2014

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.

Working With Interpreters: Advice for Event Managers

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 16, 2014

Interpreters are becoming increasingly necessary. With globalisation, glocalisation, social media, cheaper air travel and the growth of the EU, even the smallest corporate event has the potential to become a multicultural, multilingual, multi-everything affair. Yet few event managers have any direct experience of working with interpreters. For some, it would seem to be enough to simply lift the phone to the first likely-looking agency and hope that is the end of the matter. Job done, right?

Not quite. As with almost all areas of event planning, there are ways to get interpreting incredibly right … and ways to get it embarrassingly wrong. For every event where the delegates head home feeling inspired and valued, there is one where they spend their time angrily thumping their headsets, looking around bewildered and wishing for the exit.

You can’t afford for that to happen at your event!

To make sure that your event sends ALL of the delegates home with a spring in their step, here are five top tips to ensure that you get interpreting absolutely right:

  • Over-communicate

When good event managers sit down with their clients to work on a programme, they always start with the basics: Who is the event for? Why is it taking place? How will we know it has been successful? It is taken for granted that until you know this information, you simply can’t deliver the goods.

The same is true for interpreters. While it might seem that they are walking dictionaries, ready for anything, the kind of slick service you want is only achievable with excellent preparation. Not only that but the more they know about the event, the more they can tailor your services to your requirements. The kind of interpreting you want at a big sales event will be very different to what you expect at a board meeting. Seminars at technical exhibitions have very different requirements than interpreting at a press conference.

All this means that, if interpreters are to deliver the best value service, they need to have access to the best information. In short, no event ever crumbled because the interpreters knew too much!

  • Look for Value not Price

Every marketplace is competitive and events management is no exception. Yet smart professionals that there are only so many corners you can cut before the event falls to pieces and your reputation with it! Interpreting is one of those places where cheap is certainly not cheerful.

A good interpreter is highly qualified, super literate, have a wide range of general knowledge and be able to hold their own in complex environments. They will also have a commitment to continually improving, working in close partnership with their clients and will take real pride in their work. People like that are rare.

So, how do you know when you have the right interpreters or the right provider? I would suggest a few very simple tests.

  1. Always look for membership of a professional body. This not only sets your mind at ease but will demonstrate that they are really committed to their profession and their industry.
  2. Look for someone who asks useful questions. This demonstrates that they want to really understand the event, rather than just turning up, working half-heartedly and going home.
  3. Find someone who knows their limits. The best interpreters know that you can only perform well in the right environment. If you find people who are happy to work at cheap rates, with poor equipment and no other interpreter to support them, be very afraid! That is a sure sign that they really don’t care about the quality of service they will provide. Real professionals and good agencies, on the other hand, are all too happy to explain the most effective ways to work with interpreters and the reasons behind them. They might even be able to help you build the right team for your event.
  • Listen!

If you are planning a multicultural event, you need backup. You need people who know the cultures of your attendees and can give you insights on what will work and what won’t. Interpreters are a great source of that kind of information as they are multicultural by nature. While few will volunteer information unless asked (or unless you are heading for disaster), it is always worthwhile either checking ideas with them or the agency they work with. That distillery tour might go down really well with your North American attendees but cause offence to those from the Middle East. Your decision to leave titles off the conference badges might feel egalitarian to you but degrading to someone from outside your country.

In short, partnership will always produce better results than handing the entire thing off with no support and little information. The more you see and treat interpreters as fellow professionals, whose work is vital for the success of the event, the more successful the event will be.