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Monthly Archives: October 2018

Why Speech Translation Apps Fail

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 25, 2018

The Events Management world loves technology. From holograms to RFID badges and from giant robots to automated registration, everyone is on the lookout for some new piece of kit that will drastically improve delegate experience.

In this world, it’s no wonder that machine interpreting/speech translation apps and devices are generating excitement. From the one-way only ili to the shiny in-ear devices from Waverly Labs, millions of dollars have been thrown the way of companies willing to push the boundaries of language technology. Given their slick publicity, even some event managers have got caught up.

Yet there is one small problem with every single one of these devices. They might generate great results in lab tests but, once you take them out into the real-world, the problems quickly emerge. From Tencent’s public fiasco to Wired UK discovering the disappointing truth about the performance of Google’s speech translation pixel buds, it seems that the hype around these devices bears no resemblance to their actual performance.

Why?

Machines Don’t Actually Interpret

What the tech companies don’t tell you is that none of them actually understand what interpreters do. Their devices do three very clever things: they turn speech into text in one language (voice recognition & transcription), then turn that text into text into another language (machine translation), then turn that text into speech again (voice synthesis).

It’s all very smart but saying that interpreters do voice recognition, translation and synthesis is like saying that pianists hit piano keys, press pedals with their feet and follow a rhythm. It’s true but it misses out huge chunks of the process.

Despite all the great shifts in machine learning, the biggest weakness in all speech translation and machine interpreting is that it is not interpreting. It’s not that the technology is bad; it’s that it’s not actually doing the task it is sold to do.

So what do human interpreters do?

Explaining what human interpreters do would take an entire book but there are a few things that buyers need to know about human interpreters. Here are three fundamental ones.

  • Interpreters deal with intonation

Take the English sentence “I only told her I loved her.” That sentence can have seven different meanings according to which word is stressed. In many languages, that would lead to seven different ways of  interpreting that same sentence. Multiply that across an entire speech and you can see that missing the intonation in one sentence can throw off the entire meaning of the talk.

For the moment at least, machine interpreting/speech translation can only deal with the words that are said. Zero intonation and stress data are passed from the voice recognition engine to the machine translation engine. Any meaning that is not found in the words on the page is lost.

  • Interpreters deal with status and number

This might be hard for monolingual English speakers to understand but there is no one way of translating or interpreting “Please sit down” into French or German or any other language that has more than one word for “you”. A human interpreter would know immediately whether you are addressing one or many people and whether there was a difference in social status or need for politeness that would determine which word for “you” they should use. Machines simply don’t know and can’t know.

That might seem like a minor issue but, in the context of say, trying to sell products or negotiating a million-pound deal, the minor annoyance and rudeness of getting that wrong can make a difference. Would you want to take the risk?

  • Interpreters deal with context

This sums up every other point but deserves its own emphasis. Research into real-world interpreting keeps on showing just how many decisions interpreters take because of the context in which they work. They explain culture-specific terms, unknot misunderstandings, shift the language they use according to the needs of the audience, and make smart decisions as to how to deliver the message to the audience. And those are just the differences we know about!

Any machine interpreting system that misses out on intonation, social status and context is doomed to failure because those aspects are just as important as the individual words said by the speaker.

 

These new devices absolutely represent a step forward in technology and might just replace venerable old phrase books in every traveller’s back pocket but for your next event, you should definitely choose humans.

 

If your next event involves more than one language, it makes sense to get help from an expert to get exactly the right interpreting. If you need a consultant to make sure you get great interpreting  when it matters most to you, send me a message so we can chat through the results you want and how best to get them.

 

Interpreting and Accent-shaming

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 9, 2018

I would not normally tell this story. This blog is usually aimed at clients and so I rarely write about issues like this. But since this one directly affects clients, I think it needs to be discussed.

The Day I was Accent-Shamed

It’s more than ten years since I was a trainee interpreter, working towards my masters at Heriot-Watt University. The course was great, the support was fantastic and I met people there with whom I still work. But one day was not OK.

From the second semester, we had a weekly mock conference. This, for me, was the most valuable part of the entire course. A few times, the university would being in practising interpreters too.

One of these “professionals” nearly ended my career before it started. He was sent as pedagogical assistance from one of the European international organisations. He was smartly dressed, with impeccable English and he knew he was good.

During the mock conference he heard, I had a really bad day. I hadn’t prepared properly, the speeches seemed harder than usual and it just all went wrong. When I saw the guy at the end of the lesson, he shot me a haughty look and said.

“I don’t think you’re cut out for interpreting. Your performance wasn’t good enough. Oh and that accent has to go.”

Three sentences, three blows to my confidence, three reasons to give up then and there. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the amazing Lila Guha coming and encouraging us a few weeks later, I would have quit. I am glad I didn’t. But it was heart-breakingly close.

The Truth About Accents

I know I am not the only interpreter who has been told that they needed a more “neutral accent” to survive. It probably comes from the right place. Everyone wants conference interpreters to sound professional and be easy to understand. It’s probably what clients want too, right?.

Contrary to the advice I often received, my accent has proven to be a boon. Not many people who grow up a short bus ride from Glasgow ever make to interpreting school. For jobs on fisheries policy, for example, where pretty much all the delegates arrive with strong accent of their own, having a booth full of people who aren’t scared of Aberdonian English or Northern French helps to settle the organiser’s nerves.

For clients, the interpreters’ accents rarely seem to be an issue. Perhaps it’s because their world is full of accents already.

Being Easy to Understand does not Require a “Neutral Accent”

Go into any tradeshow and you will hear a plethora of accents. Attend any international confernece and Geordie will rub shoulders with Mexican Spanish, while North African French mingles with Chinese-flavoured German. The events at which we work are incredibly diverse. Shouldn’t the interpreters be too?

The whole “neutral accent” issue seems to boils down to two problems.

The first is whether your accent is so strong that it impedes understanding. For interpreters, that is actually an issue. Clients do need to be able to follow us, after all.

When clients are incomprehensible, it is usually more to do with using an unfamiliar lingua franca or reading from a typed manuscript. We never tire of advising speakers to speak from notes and use their native language.

It is doubtful that incomprehensible interpreters would ever make it through training. Gaps in language skills, pronunciation errors and articulation problems will be caught be careful tutors. Being able to express yourself clearly, no matter your home region, is a basic skill.

Yet being comprehensible and losing your native regional accent are two entirely different things. By all means, let’s encourage Glaswegians to slow down a bit and replace their glottal stops for the consonants that were originally there. But let’s not tell them that they have to sound like Eton graduates if they want to get work.

The Need to Reflect Diversity

The second problem with our push for “neutral accents” is that it hides the diversity of modern international events.

If the conference hall is home to a range  accents, surely the interpreting booth should be too. What does it say to clients if make it a mark of professionalism to turn a diverse speaking lineup into a parade of soundalikes? If the conference is for slang-using lumberjacks, isn’t it a bit weird for the interpreters’ voices to make them sound like yuppies?

So where do we go?

If event managers are facing the need to think more carefully about the messages they send when they choose speakers and panel members, then interpreters need to think more carefully about the messages we send to our clients and to new interpreters.

We can, and indeed should, continue to hang on to the requirement that interpreters are easy to understand for everyone listening. But, in a world increasingly aware of the benefits of diversity and the problems of privilege, we really do need to drop the “neutral accent” thing.

No modern linguist would see “neutral accents” as anything more than linguistic discrimination. Received Pronunciation and Midland American English are two specific accents among many. When we ask interpreters to strip off their accents, we are asking them to distance themselves from an important part of their identity, while attempting to create an interpreting profession full of soundalike clones.

If even the big national broadcasters can see the benefit of letting people hear a variety of voices, shouldn’t we?

Sure, some clients will prefer some accents, just as some interpreters prefer certain kinds of speakers. But the market is big enough and varied enough for the world of interpreting to reflect the diverse, multi-accented world in which we work.

Over to you:

If you are an events manager or interpreting buyer, do you have a preference for certain accents?

If you are an interpreter, have you ever been told to drop your accent? Did you?
Would you ever advise an interpreter to drop their accent?

10 Lessons from Paternity Leave

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 5, 2018

Integrity Languages has been a bit quieter than usual, as we celebrated the birth of our fourth child in September. While I send off some important projects, here are a few lessons from my paternity leave.

  1. You can only truly discover what is in a nappy when you unfasten it; you can only truly know what a project will be like when you do it.
  2. It is absolutely possible to answer emails while burping a baby but do wear a muslin cloth.
  3. Learning is always quicker when you are having fun.
  4. If an “expert” knows the answer to every question, they have never met children under 7.
  5. Everything is fun to someone. Join them and you will have fun too.
  6. There is no hobby, no matter how esoteric, that someone cannot make money from using YouTube and a bit of imagination.
  7. The best days are those when you end up so tired you are asleep by the time your head hits the pillow.
  8. If you put crazy ideas on twitter, lots of people will actually want them to become reality.
  9. Trust German podcast co-hosts to be organisational geniuses
  10. Being a consultant interpreter means you have to be able to act as a consultant interpreters as well as buyers.

If you would like to see one of those lessons turned into a full blog post, drop me a comment.