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Monthly Archives: April 2018

The Tencent Interpreting Fiasco: a buyer perspective

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 27, 2018

It was hard to miss. Tencent, one of the biggest technology companies in China, aimed to show off their technological prowess by turning over the interpreting at their major tech showcase to a machine. And the results were … not great. The machine spouted gibberish, journalists were amused and suddenly the job of human interpreters seemed safe.

The problem is that most of the discussions of the whole affair were very short-sighted. For businesses and interpreters alike, such short-term “will humans have a job next year?” thinking is strategically useless. In fact, the whole “humans or AI” debate is misleading.

In this post, I will look at what business leaders, events professionals and other buyers need to learn from the Tencent fiasco. Next week, I will look at the perspective of interpreters.

So what do buyers need to learn from the Tencent machine interpreting fiasco?

Let’s start with the obvious: machine interpreting is not ready to be used at important events.

Despite the claims of companies selling the latest gadget and the claims of machine translation suppliers, the best that current technology can do is help you get directions to the train station or help you order pasta. In fact, the latter is even one of the use cases suggested by Google themselves!

There are many reasons why machine interpreting is not even nearly ready to take over your next event but the most important to remember at the moment is that machine interpreting can only deal with words. While words are important, they will always get their meaning from context, intonation and allusion.

Saying “we have no reservations” takes on entirely different meanings depending on who says it. If a hotel receptionist says it, it probably means that your travel agent has messed up. If a potential client says it five minutes before they are due to sign a large contract, it means something completely different. Currently, machine interpreting has no way of determining the wider context of how language is used, apart from sometimes being able to take into account what was said before.

Human interpreters are trained to understand language in context. This is why they ask for detailed briefs before they accept assignments. This is why sometimes they will refer assignments to their colleagues, who might know a specific context better than they do.

Until machine interpreting can understand the social and cultural context of what is being said, it will be as likely to get you in trouble and help you seal the deal. 

The Tencent fiasco not only shows this principle in action but demonstrates the need to be highly critical of the claims of machine interpreting providers. Tencent’s claim of “97% accuracy” most likely came from laboratory results and limited in-house testing. The only results that matter from machine interpreting providers are the experience of clients using it in similar environments to you. For now, it will pay to ignore any research that comes out of testing laboratories. They simply don’t reflect real-life conditions.

This doesn’t mean that we should ignore or ridicule machine interpreting. It will have its uses. It may be worth equipping your sales team with it, to make it easier for them to find their way around foreign cities. One day soon, it may even make human interpreting more effective by helping interpreters to prepare better.

But its uses are still limited and there are still privacy concerns attached. Anything said into a machine interpreting app can and will be used as training data. As soon as you turn on machine interpreting, you basically sign away your rights to keep what you said private.

As much as the Tencent fiasco serves as a warning of the dangers in being overconfident in your newest product, it can and should launch some serious debates about the relevance and usefulness of such technologies for businesses and the extent to which we are happy to sign away privacy in return for technological improvements.

 

Want expertise in setting up interpreting for your business? Drop me a message to set up a free Skype call.

Signs of a GDPR Fakespert

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 26, 2018

Hello and welcome to the 2018 edition of The Millenium Bug. Today, we will be looking at GDPR fakesperts. What’s a fakespert? If an expert is someone who makes their money off the back of having real knowledge of a subject and helping people make effective decisions, a fakespert is someone whose only skills involve repacking generic advice into mega-courses, only available if you sign up for their mailing list (and pay £99.95).

With GDPR coming into force across the EU in May, there has been plenty of scope for real experts to make their mark (thank you Information Commissioner’s Office here in the UK) and for fakesperts to don their shiniest suits and sell their stuff.

How do you tell the difference? Here is a rather cheeky guide to what to look for in a GDPR fakespert.

  • Fakesperts conspicuously don’t mention availability of ICO guidance 

The first sign of a fakespert is that the sell themselves as the be-all-and-end-all, fountain of knowledge and never, ever mention their sources. Here in the UK, anyone who doesn’t mention that the best and fullest information is found on the ICO website is likely a fakespert. The real experts will mention the ICO and sell their services as distilling the screeds of ICO advice into simple, easy-to-apply practices for your business.

  • The closest they have ever been to SARs is feeling out of breath once

This is a bit of a data protection in-joke. An SAR (Subject Access Request to give it its Sunday name) is a request filed by someone who wishes to know what personal information an organisation holds on them. At the moment, they cost £10 in the UK and, depending on the organisation can cost much, much more to actually do.

If someone has never seen, much less had to manage SARs, it is likely that their expertise in data protection law and GDPR is more theoretical than practical. Even though SARs are thankfully rare, you probably want someone who has had the “joy” of helping a company through the existing legislation to help you through the new rules.

  • Until last week, they thought the ICO were the people who ran the Olympics 

A proper GDPR expert will know the name of the organisation responsible for data protection in your country and will definitely be familiar with their materials and guidance. If, for example, they get them mixed up with the governing body of an event where people win medals for the marathon, they will not be helpful to you in the long run [pun intended].

  • Their only training is a £29.99 course, which they are now repackaging into a £99.99 expert briefing 

GDPR is complex. It’s principles are relatively straightforward but their application is varied and depends on so many factors that it makes your head spin. Real GDPR experts, even if they haven’t yet led a company through existing requirements, will have spent days trying to get their head round the relevant laws and their application to your country.

The best of the best will already have a background in a role that would have involved expertise in existing legislation. They might be accountants, info security managers, data protection officers, lawyers or something similar. Sometimes, there might be someone in your specific field who has done their homework but it will pay to make sure that they are getting their training from the right places.

  • They are happy to sell you generic advice but won’t even consider coming to your office to help out in person 

A few bullet points with platitudes about “keeping records up-to-date”, “having clear opt-ins” and “getting a good privacy policy” aren’t enough for you to make the right decisions. What might those general principles mean to you? How do they apply in your situation?

It’s likely that you need a helping hand, rather than a teacher’s blackboard. If the most you can get from someone is a smart-looking video and a 5 point plan, keep your credit card in your pocket. At very least, you will need someone who can give you specific answers to you specific questions, even if those answers are “we don’t know yet.”

Just as the Millenium Bug turned semi-decent programmers into megabucks consultants, there is a real danger that GDPR will turn fly-by-night operators into Data Protection Gurus. I am anything but a GDPR expert. I am a consultant interpreter. But together we can make sure that we bypass the fakesperts and spend cash wisely on getting the advice and help that will not only ensure we pass the legal checks but run a much more streamlined, efficient business.

Eventbrite and the Power of User Revolt

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 23, 2018

While I was away enjoying the delights of Vienna and the BP18 conference (blog post coming soon), a  storm broke out among events professionals on social media. Here was my first glimpse of it.

Screencapture of Facebook update from Alan Stevens

The upshot was simple: Eventbrite claimed the right to come to any event where their software was used and to film and/or record everything that went on for their own promotional use. In short, the content created at the event belonged to them, not the organisers or the speakers.

Needless to say, when this went public, the events management world went crazy. Within a few days, the #eventbrite hashtag on Twitter was full of complaints, demands for information and competitors showing how their services were better. Yesterday, this response came from their head office account. (Name of tweeter redacted)

Screencapture of tweet from Eventbrite

The offending clauses would noticeably disappear from the terms used in the UK and US.

The users won.

Now that we are beginning to ask tough questions about the power and responsibility of technology companies, this one decision stands out. When users make enough noise, companies do change their practices. A few tweets or posts in the right place and behaviour changes.

Not only does this  story remind us of the power of users, it should serve as a warning to all businesses to respond to client problems before their reputation is threatened. Just because your lawyers told you that your Terms of Service are legally good, that doesn’t mean that they are the right ones for you and your users. So how helpful are your terms?

 

 

Do Monolingual Tech Conferences Make Sense?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 9, 2018

Almost every consultant interpreter will have been told at some point that conferences in tech or medicine tend to be English-only. “Everyone speaks English and interpreting is expensive so we just have the entire conference in English” say some organisers. While it seems to make financial sense, is it a good long-term decision?

Let’s start with a story.

I was interpreting at a negotiation. A French company were trying to get investment in their newest sure-fire, profit-making product. At least one of the two senior managers could have managed in English and the investor had decent enough French, so why did they hire me?

The problem wasn’t so much in terminology, although there were terminological differences, but in culture. The investor came from a culture where the point of a meeting was to quickly dive into the financial detail, especially the profit margins and earnings forecasts. He expected that everyone would want to get straight down to the figures and returns.

The French company were into building relationship, talking history, vision, and extolling the virtues of their community engagement. They needed an interpreter not just because of linguistic differences but to help them navigate the cultural difference.

English-only events exist because there is an assumption that people all know the same terms and so they can communicate perfectly. If the majority of the terms are the same in every language, there is no room for miscommunication, right?

Wrong! Just ask the Italian construction industry experts who fouled up a presentation of their company’s best ever project in front of hundreds of other industry bods because they presented in (broken) English, instead of Italian. Ask the British manufacturing company who almost lost a deal because they defined a word differently to a visiting buyer.

Terminology is just one part of language and often, it is the least relevant part. While it is possible to take the idea too far, it is well-known that different languages have different views of the world. A US company might look at a widget and see three parts to it, a company in Germany might see six. In some cultures, it is absolutely vital to show due respect to your hosts with a flowing, artful thank you at the top of your presentation; in others, that marks you out as a time-waster.

English-only events create an illusion of understanding and implicitly exclude ideas and thinking that don’t fit easily into English-language norms. For that reason English-only tech events block more innovations than they promote. How can machine translation experts learn to create more flexible and useful systems if they work, present and test in largely monolingual environments? Why else would so many companies chase after the low-value market for “instant interpreting on the go“, if not because their founders rarely speak anything but English?

The business case for English-only events is becoming weaker as time goes on. We know that people buy more, are more easily persuaded and learn more if they read and hear in their native language. Could it be that they think better and innovate more in that language too? And if that is the case, could it be that interpreting, rather than being a big expense could be the smartest investment that a company can make?

 

If you are looking at making that investment, this free course is designed to help you get the most out of it. Want advice right away? Drop me an email.

Simultaneous Translation – the need to know guide

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 5, 2018

Don’t have time to read long guide before you jump into buying simultaneous translation? Then this is the post for you. Scroll down for five things you need to know about simultaneous translation before you buy it. To make life even easier, scroll right down to the bottom for a link for a free email course, which takes you through all the buying stages and includes free templates and guides to work through.

Ready?

  1. Professionals call simultaneous translation “simultaneous interpreting” or even just use the term “conference interpreting”. Those who offer “simultaneous translation” without any hedging or further explanation tend not to know what they are doing. And when interpreting goes wrong, it goes really wrong.
  2. Simultaneous interpreting is expensive but its results are incredible. Want to be able to persuade several audiences at once and see orders roll in from around the globe? You will need interpreters. Want to make sure that your talk sounds as smooth in French and German as it does in English? Get yourself some simultaneous interpreters.
  3. You can have simultaneous interpreting without interpreting equipment but you probably shouldn’t. Yes, it’s always a bit of a shock to read the quote for the equipment for interpreting. But, unless you want everyone at your event to complain about the pesky whispering people at the back, you will want to hire in the requisite soundproof booths, microphones and headsets.
  4. You don’t have to get interpreters through agencies. One of the biggest changes in the past few years has been the massive shift in interpreter thinking. Excellent professional interpreters are now happy and proud to offer their services directly to you and some will even find the rest of your interpreting team and pull together the AV equipment for you too!
  5. If your business is English-only, you are losing out on deals. This isn’t strictly about interpreting but it certainly justifies it. According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages here in the UK, UK businesses lose out on £50billion worth of contracts every year due to a lack of language skills. That’s a lot of money to lose, just for the lack of a good interpreting budget.

Want to know how you can hire interpreters the right way every time so you get the most from your budget? Sign up for the Buying Interpreting Step-by-Step course.