Integrity Languages


Thou Shalt Not Gloat: What the Tencent Fiasco Means for Interpreters

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 1, 2018

Another day, another company trying to replace human interpreters and failing miserably. As I discussed last week, the Tencent interpreting fiasco means that, for now at least, the jobs of human interpreters are safe … but is that it?

It’s a familiar story. A company tries to develop a machine interpreting system with pretty much zero knowledge of what interpreters actually do, apart from the fact that it has something to do with words. The company tells everyone what wonderful technology they have and launches it in a blaze of glory. And then, on its first true public test, it flops.

The story has been seen repeatedly from at least 2012 and recently, Chinese tech giant, Tencent, followed suit. Another demo, another set of giggling journalists. Will tech companies never learn?

While professional interpreters might be tempted to gloat or laugh, neither response is helpful. The fact is that tech companies will never give up on machine interpreting, the prize is just too great. And for professional interpreters, the implications of that have never been clearer. Read on to examine them.

The aloof interpreter is dead

When I started around a decade ago, the values of the professional interpreting community were founded on professional distance. We were supposed to be completely neutral, blissfully uninvolved, and deliberately apart from what our clients were trying to do. I was even advised by one senior interpreter that we should keep as far apart from clients as possible at meal times!

As much as there is still some value in the fairness and even-handedness that comes with neutrality, the continued fascination with machine interpreting shows us that if our work is limited to saying exactly what the other person said, the machines will soon take over.

Instead of distant interpreters, separate from the proceedings of the event, clients will increasingly look to human interpreters to care deeply about the goals of the events at which they work and to find ways for those goals to achieved fairly. For decades now, medical interpreters have been talking about the need to play their part in successful doctor’s appointments and procedures, sign language interpreters have been openly debating the active roles they play and community interpreters have been talking about cultural difference.

In some settings and in some countries, recent research is even showing that trained professional interpreters are being replaced with “cultural mediators”, as buyers become more aware that “just language” is “just not enough”.

However remote it might seem, the spectre of the interpreting machine has killed the aloof interpreter. From now on, we need to get used to using our situational awareness, problem solving skills, dedication, cultural knowledge and people skills.

We need good PR and we need it now

The big tech companies aren’t getting a lot right in the way they see interpreting but they have PR nailed. They have sold a dream of people being able to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world – a dream we have been bringing to life for generations.

It’s time we started selling dreams too.

I have blogged and written elsewhere about how a single situational decision from an interpreter meant that a company won a deal worth several million pounds. I know colleagues whose quick thinking has saved lives. There are interpreters whose ability to find just the right turn of phrase has changed the course of summits.

We know those people, the public doesn’t. It’s time that changed.

Let’s thank Tencent for the wake up call. We can show the world that we already do what they tried and failed to achieve. We enable communication, we wow audiences, we make sure that justice happens, that treatment is available, that deals get done.

If you are an interpreter reading this, I plead with you to blog or write a single (anonymised) story of the power of your work. Call it CPD if you must but unless and until we turn around our PR models and actually help people understand that human interpreting makes a difference, we will sell our careers and our profession to the tech companies.

Let’s give some markets away

As I have written previously on this blog, there are some markets that just aren’t suitable for professional interpreters, if they ever were. Joe Smith doesn’t need us to ask for some more pizza in Italian. Sally Jones doesn’t need us to ask for cough medicine in South Korea.

Why not allow and even encourage the machine interpreting people to take over those low-value markets? If a salesman feels he can use Google Earbuds to get around in Mongolia, he might be more likely to go there for business. In the meetings that matter, he will need us. 

Handing some markets over to machine interpreting can encourage more international travel and more international trade, creating more work for us. The machines aren’t our enemies or our replacements, they might just be our new marketing team.

We need to talk about tech

Prof Barry Olsen, whom I respect very much, concluded that the rise of machine interpreting means that we need to look at how interpreting is offered. I would agree but I would add a caveat.

As machine interpreting and the like try to commoditise interpreting, professionals need to make sure that they are both aware of possible technological solutions and critical of them at the same time.

Reliable VoIP lines have created kinds of meeting that were rarely achievable even five years ago. For clients who are meeting virtually, we need to have robust, professional interpreting solutions. At the same time, we need to be careful not to be tempted into selling “flexible online interpreting” as the solution for every single case. In-person conferences need in-person interpreters. 

Why do in-person conferences need in-person interpreters? Precisely because interpreting is about so much more than words or signs. Even the simplest conference will involve subtle changes in atmosphere, shifts in tone and the need to navigate tricky social tensions. Even the simplest doctor’s appointment or police interview will involve cultural nuance and linguistic issues. There is simply no replacement for the physical presence of the interpreter in such situations.

I can’t be the only interpreter who has found that a three minute chat with a client over lunch has led to the resolution of a tricky issue. And I am sure that many clients have learned more about interpreting through interesting conversations with interpreters.

After mental health, interpreter invisibility is the biggest problem we face as a profession. It is invisibility, as much as budget, that has handed the advantage to tech companies. It is invisibility that has led to rate pressure. It is invisibility that needs to end, if human interpreting is still to be seen as the highest value option.

We absolutely must learn to adopt technologies and keep on the front foot regarding shifts in working methods but we must be absolutely clear that technology cannot be allowed to render interpreters even less visible than they already are. That would be an existential danger to the profession and a disservice to our clients.

So what now?

The most important question we can ask ourselves about the Tencent fiasco is how we will respond. We can scoff for a few years yet and we might not notice a difference. But it won’t take long before such scoffing turns to crying, if we aren’t careful.

Tencent have handed us a golden opportunity to restart a conversation on what interpreters actually do, why we do it and the results we get. While professional associations absolutely should take the lead, it’s up to individual interpreters to use their honed vocal and signing skills to create their own PR. The world needs to know what we do and why machines are having such a hard time at catching up. And we need to know what we are talking about technologically and the pros and cons of different solutions.

How are YOU  going to let the world know? How are YOU learning today?


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