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Monthly Archives: July 2018

Less Greek Poetry, More Lifesaving, Please

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 27, 2018

You might have missed it but the world has another translation of the Odyssey into English. This one is different as it was translated by a woman, Emily Wilson, a professor of the classics at the University of Pennsylvania. You may have missed it as the excitement surrounding it has only reached fever-pitch in the lofty worlds of literary translation, literary criticism, feminist studies and in some corners of translation. If you are a business owner reading this, I doubt you could even be persuaded to care.

Yes, it is an achievement. Yes, it tells us many interesting things about the inherent bias of all translation (even machine translation is biased). Yes, it is a cultural milestone. But it leaves me with not much more than a nonplussed shrug. In fact, the waves of excitement about it that have hit the translation world have actually slightly worried me.

Just as interpreters only ever seem to make the news when they are working for politicians or apparently at risk from machines, it seems that we are rarely ever good at getting people talking about translation when it concerns a book, especially an old one written by a long-dead author.

As someone who spends time in the metal-clanging, mud-flecked world of commercial interpreting, with colleagues whose work in the medical world is more about saving the lives of people who are still breathing, I find it sad that we still find it easier to laud a new translation of the Odyssey than the shout about the fact that people didn’t die this week or businesses grew this week or websites could reach new audiences this week because of the work of lesser-known interpreters and translators.

Of course, non-disclosure agreements don’t apply to the Classics but is a new side of Homer really the biggest achievement translators and interpreters can shout about?

If the saga over Donald Trump’s Russian interpreter taught the world what we mean by professional secrecy and the translations of the UK Government Brexit White Paper allowed us to explain what we mean by quality assurance, what else might the achievements of everyday commercial translators and interpreters show the world?

An average conference interpreter might be worth millions to their clients. Medical translators and interpreters literally save lives every single day. Court interpreters allow everyone to receive justice, whatever their language, while saving significant sums in mistrials. Business interpreters give their clients the best possible chance of winning deals.

So if we are going to celebrate a new translation of the Odyssey, let’s spend even more time celebrating the less glamourous but vital achievements of those outside of the literary sphere. If we are going to be inspired by the Classics, let’s seek even greater inspiration from the Herculean effort of the 90+% of translators who will never translate a single book.

And here’s the biggest challenge. If we are going to decide that we want to hear encouraging, inspiring stories of breaking down barriers, going against the flow and building something genuinely new at our conferences, could we not find that just as easily from our most humble colleagues as we do from leading literary lights? We love speakers whose interests lie in either literature or tech but what about livestreaming some of our simplest colleagues as they tell (anonymised) stories of life on the front line, mediating between life and death, profit and loss, war and peace, injury and safety.

This isn’t just an appeal for translators and interpreters to shine a light on the everyday miracles of even our most humble colleagues. It’s a wakeup call to every business owner who finds this post. We are proud of our diplomatic and literary colleagues but we are equally proud of the colleagues whose work is more directly relevant to your concerns. We are more than headlines and articles in literary magazines.

We are those who increase your profits, open new markets, provide safety documents, allow multilingual inspections, let you receive medical care abroad, and create websites that lead people outside of your home country to buy your products. We are professional interpreters and translators and we make international business (and politics and law) work.

Replacing interpreters with interpreters who know technology

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 13, 2018

Interpreters will not be replaced by technology; they will be replaced by interpreters who use technology – Bill Wood, company founder, DS Interpretation

That quote has become the interpreting equivalent of translators answering “it depends on context” to even the simplest question and agencies asking for “your best rate”. But what does it mean and is it accurate? Even more to the point, why should you care if you are buying interpreting?

The “undeniable facts” of interpreting technology

The impulse behind the quote that started this post seems to be these five “undeniable facts”:

  • After a slow start, new technologies are now filtering into interpreting and shaping work,
  • And they will continue to do so,
  • Those who learn how to use the technologies to their benefit and to the benefit of their clients gain a first mover advantage in the marketplace,
  • Those who lag behind are in danger of having out-dated business models that will not survive after everyone clambers to get on the high-tech bandwagon,
  • Therefore, it is a good business strategy to learn technologies now!

Now, apart from the fact that those facts have been true to some degree at any point in the development of the modern interpreting profession (which is only about 60-70 years old anyway, if we concentrate on conference interpreting), there is plenty of room to debate how far those five assumptions are both accurate and meaningful.

And of course, this still sidesteps the question of  their application to other forms of interpreting. What affects the conference hall might not touch the courts; the difference maker in the doctor’s office might have no effect on the negotiating room.

So, are new technologies changing interpreting? From the point of view of interpreters, yes they are (depending on where and how you work). From the point of view of clients, it remains to be seen. Can clients tell the difference between remote interpreting and in-person interpreting? That remains to be tested. 

Will technologies continue to filter into interpreting? Well, yes but that is practically a truism in any profession. Try to find an accountant who still keeps paper cashbooks or a lawyer who never looks up case law online.

Now what about the first mover advantage and the slow mover disadvantage? As a researcher, I have to say that I have seen absolutely zero objective evidence that interpreters who are adopting any form of technology are seeing any economic advantage (one for a PhD student to study, methinks). And we all know our share of old-school interpreters, who think that being high-tech means accepting contracts by email, yet they still make a packet.

Why People Forecast the Triumph of Interpreting Technology

The famed competitive advantage of adopting technology is a forecast, rather than a reality. We think it will be that way because that forecast serves the purpose of … selling technology. I really don’t think clients care a hoot whether we have a paperless booth or turn up with an armful of vellum scrolls. Results, not techniques, are the order of the day.

There is, of course, the rather more sound economic argument that technologies can increase service availability and so allow more streams of income. That kind of works … until we read research that tells us about video remote sign language interpreters ending up with worse pay and conditions than their in-person colleagues. If there is an economic advantage to that technology, it isn’t being felt by the interpreters. And I doubt it is being seen by the buyers either.

A More Realistic View

Adopting technology for the sake of adopting technology is a really cruddy business strategy. Being smart and adopting technologies that allow you to offer better service levels and products that are better suited to your market is much better.

So maybe the quote should actually be “interpreters will not be replaced by technology but by interpreters who make smart business decisions as to the technologies they adopt.”. Admittedly, that isn’t as good a soundbite. But it is more intellectually honest.

What about buyers?

My advice to buyers is simple. Take a good look at what you are being offered. If you receive a quote with a load of techno-babble you don’t understand, walk away. If, instead, you get chatting with someone who actually cares to find out what you are trying to achieve and sends a quote explicitly showing you how it can be done, you have found the right person.

It’s not about high-tech or low-tech; it’s about getting the right tech to deliver what the buyer wants. And if that means vellum scrolls this week and shiny apps the next, so be it. The interpreting world is too complex for short quips to sum it up.

 

What the EP Interpreters Strike Teaches Interpreting Buyers

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 6, 2018

While I was training to be a conference interpreter, international organisations and especially the European Union, were held up as the highest level at which you could work. Their quality, conditions and working routines were thought to be the paragon of professionalism. Senior management of the European Parliament have dented that view.

Faced with a perceived need to save money on their interpreting budget, reports from interpreters and their respresentatives have claimed that a new contract will be unilaterally forced on interpreters, a contract which includes working conditions that threaten their emotional and physiological well-being. Many of the staff interpreters working at the Parliament are being deprived of the right to strike, a fundamental human right for almost every profession. It is not a pretty picture.

But why does this matter do other interpreting buyers?

Apart from the obvious, and admittedly philosophical, cries that the crisis threatens multilingual democracy, this unnecessary conflict shines a light on a commonly perceived conflict between interpreting buyers and interpreters. Buyers want the best deal possible. Interpreters want the best conditions possible. The two are not always compatible … or so it might seem.

There are three paths towards a resolution.

In the commercial world, one possible path is for buyers to throw their hands in the air and declare that they can do the entire thing in just in English (or some other language). Yes, that solution is cheaper but its drawbacks are well-known. In short, every pound “saved” by not hiring an interpreter leads to several more pounds wasted in lost reputation, lower sales volumes, misunderstandings and more often than not, in the higher prices paid to hire someone to sort out the resulting mess.

A second path is to simply steamroller your way through. More than one buyer has taken the decision to go for cheaper equipment, or to utter those fateful words “I am sure we can find someone to do it cheaper.” I would humbly suggest that most of the people I have met who have been dismayed by the quality on offer from “professional interpreters” feel that way because of they have seen first-hand what happens when corners are cut.

From AV companies omitting filters and pre-amps in an attempt to reduce hire costs to “Bob from Accounting” being asked to interpret instead of those overpaid professionals, seemingly small decisions can have a big impact on the outcome.

And when it comes to cutting costs, looking for ways to bypass normal working conditions are all too common. It might seem that conference interpreters have it easy: with fixed working days, expensive equipment, the opportunity to work in teams and requests to receive all the paperwork before the meeting, but there are reasons for those requests. Performing simultaneous interpreting for longer than 20-30 minutes is actually bad for your brain. And anyone who has done a 10 hour interpreting day will tell you how you feel the next morning!

The Way to Get Better Value Interpreting

If going without interpreting costs more in the long-term and cutting corners leads to unacceptable levels of quality, what does work?

The best way to get value for money from your interpreting is to … ask the interpreters.

Not exactly rocket science, I know. But it is very often overlooked. Here’s a simple example.

A non-profit organisation recently approached me for a quote for an upcoming meeting. After receiving the brief and talking to the AV and interpreting teams, we managed to come up with some solutions which shaved around £500 off the bill. Of course, there were trade-offs made. The number of delegates would be limited and they would only be able to receive the interpreting while sat in their seats. But still,  a £500 saving is better than nothing.

On other occasions, a good consultant might suggest that the conference setup means that you don’t  need simultaneous interpreting and can go for consecutive instead. It nearly doubles the length of each speech but can be significantly cheaper than simultaneous, as it needs much less equipment.

Whatever the event, experienced consultant interpreters will know the possible trade-offs and will be willing to give advice on where you can save and where you absolutely shouldn’t compromise. And this counts for every setting in which interpreting is used, not just conferences. It’s in the interests of the interpreters to make sure that you and your delegates have an excellent event, after all. And they will know from experience which decisions always lead to grumpy users and disappointed buyers.

Teamwork always wins

The best route to get value for money from interpreting will always be to partner with interpreters to find workable solutions. Teamwork, rather than throwing weight around or forcing the issue, always gets the best results. Now, if only someone could explain that to the management of the European Parliament.

 

If you have an event coming up and you are looking to get the best from your interpreters, it would be my pleasure to give you all the help and advice you need. From speeding up the briefing process to building a bespoke team, I am here to help. Drop me an email to start the conversation.