Integrity Languages


Monthly Archives: February 2020

You don’t need to cancel your event due to coronavirus

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 26, 2020

Around the world, many events are now at risk due to the outbreak of COVID-19, also called coronavirus. Conference after conference is coming under threat. But, despite all the difficulties, you don’t need to cancel your conference.

While in-person meetings and events will always be the ideal, it helps to have a backup in place in case the worst happens. In the case of conferences, I would like to make a few simple recommendations:

  • As soon as possible, contact a virtual meeting company.

This is especially important if your conference was going to be multilingual. Companies such as KUDO or Linguali (neither are paying me to mention them) enable you to provide complex video and audio feeds to everyone who was going to be at the conference. Better yet, they allow you to still run a multilingual event by providing an excellent platform for interpreters too.

  • Talk to sponsors and those who have bought stands about alternatives

No matter what your contracts say, you will keep better relationships with key supporters if you get them in the loop early. If you move the event into the virtual space, offer sponsors the chance to have their logos on slides and to have their name mentioned. Those who have bought stands might be interested in sponsoring talks.

  • Be prepared to jiggle the schedule

We all know that a virtual event is no replacement for sharing the same room and it should be no surprise either that attention drops much more quickly during virtual presentations than it does when we have a speaker right in front of us. This means that switching to virtual for a one-off will also inevitably mean shortening speeches, trimming sessions and generally shifting the whole schedule around. None of this will be easy but it still provides a better experience than cancelling the whole thing.

What now?

In short, when thinking through your options, don’t write off moving the event online. Not only does it mean that your guests still get the best content, it can give you great ideas for how to use modern virtual meeting technologies in your next, hopefully virus-free, edition.

And, as ever, if you would like to schedule a free, 20-minute advice call, drop me an email.

A more detailed appraisal of the current state of remote interpreting and where it is leading can be found in my personal position.

Reassessing Speech Translation

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 24, 2020

Back in October, I wrote a blog post in which I admitted that I had jumped the gun in my assessment of remote interpreting. Now, after writing a book on speech translation and pointing out the flaws in a recent BBC article on the subject, it is time for me to go through the same process for speech translation. And the results are … slightly more complex.

Two Worlds

In my book, Interpreters vs Machines, I deliberately concentrated on the basic operating principles of all speech translation solutions and on the research that was available at the time. After that, I deliberately chose to focus on the claims of commercial speech translation solutions, since they were getting the most attention by the media and by professional interpreters. It turns out that my decision was actually pretty sound.

Academic research on speech translation is continuing quietly and is making steps to deal with one or two of the major issues I discussed in the book, especially the losses that happen when you turn speech into text, run it through machine translation and then turn the results into speech again. Apart from the Google Translatotron, which is yet to be subject to proper public assessment, there is an upcoming conference that seems to be pushing the idea of going directly from speech to speech.

The commercial world, however, continues to produce some quite remarkable claims. Take this one from a recent video by Waverly Labs:

Doing our research, we studied the tools used by professional interpreters, by taking inspiration and going one step further, we gave ambassador the capability to deliver natural, professional grade translation.

While we could quibble about the meanings of the terms here, the phrase “natural, professional grade translation” is a pretty bold claim. Either it means that they are claiming to have matched the quality of professional interpreters, which their own CEO admitted they haven’t or they are claiming their system is good enough to be used by professionals. In the latter case, one might ask whether those professionals should be persuaded to switch from using professional human interpreters.

In either case, it is clear that the purveyors of commercial speech translation are making incredibly bold claims without citing any empirical evidence. How long it will be before we have a repeat of the embarrassing Tencent incident or even the Microsoft “human parity” blunder is anyone’s guess.

Language Access

But, despite questionable marketing practices, speech translation does have a place. Yet again, it helps to turn to the always thought-provoking, Sarah Hickey, of Nimdzi Insights and now Troublesome Terps. At the #Conf1nt100 conference in Geneva, she pointed out that speech translation is finding niches in places where professionals wouldn’t be used anyway.

If you run a library, speech translation can help you achieve basic communication with patrons from other countries; in emergency situations, it can allow for simple triage until a human can be found, and of course, speech translation is great for tourists and frequent business travellers.

In short, speech translation is providing language access and doing it in places where that access might not have been previously available. That can only be good news.

What does all this mean for human interpreters? You’ll have to buy my book to discover that but I will say that we need to look beyond the unfortunately flawed coverage and crazy claims of speech translation to spend more time thinking through what researchers are managing to achieve. Basically, for now at least, ignore the marketing waffle and trust the engineers.

Want to know more?

As ever, if you are looking for advice as to how to get the best out of interpreting in your business, looking to build an interpreting team for your next event, or if you are looking for a conference interpreter in the UK working between French and English, drop me an email.

“Can computer translators ever beat speaking in a foreign tongue?” – This BBC article can’t tell us

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 21, 2020

Dear BBC,

I know how much you pride yourself on journalistic integrity and I know how keen you are to show your contribution to society, given current debates over the license fee. I also know how hard your staff work. It’s because I know all these things that I have to regretfully point out that your recent piece “Can Computer Translators Ever Beat Speaking in a Foreign Tongue?” contains several serious flaws and is therefore incoherent and misleading.

Translation and Interpreting are different professions

Unlike The Guardian, you often use the words “translator” and “interpreter” interchangeably in your reporting. While this is passable in articles on what someone “spoke through a translator”, it’s really not acceptable when talking about the achievements of computers in the two very different professions.

Conflating translation and interpreting is rather like conflating neurology and urology. No-one would ask a urologist to diagnose a brain tumour. Similarly, it’s not a good idea to ask a literary translator to interpret at a sales meeting.

The difference between translation and interpeting is simple (and has been explained here before). Interpreters work in the moment, at events, meetings or conferences. Translators work on texts after they are written.

Computer Aided Translation tools don’t fit in your ear

That flaw is the source of the greatest proportion of inaccuracies in the article. For example, it speaks about Computer Aided Translation tools as if they can do everything from detecting repetitions to providing in-ear “translation”.

That is simply false. CAT tools are software packages used by translators. Among other functions, they store previously translated sentences and glossaries of terminology. The latest tools include all sorts of features, from the ability to handle a wide range of file formats to integration with machine translation services. This makes them indispensable for many translators.

CAT tools do not and cannot provide in-ear interpreting. That is the sole preserve of in-ear speech translation gadgets. Yes, I know the term “speech translation” is rather confusing but I spent a year writing a book that explains why those gadgets don’t really deserve the title “machine interpreting” yet.

Speech Translation and Credibility

Aside from that error, it is surprising that Andrew Ochoa of Waverly Labs was approached for quotes on the capabilities of speech translation.

You may not be aware but Waverly Labs have made claims that have turned out to be less impressive in the real world. Their first product, the Pilot Translating Earpiece was claimed to have taken us to “life untethered, free of language barriers ” in its glitzy marketing video. At the same time, their own Chief Engineer wrote that the underlying technology was at a place where “two conversation partners can understand reasonably well what each one is saying“.

With their new product, The Ambassador, they claim to offer “professional grade translation“. When I approached them for the data behind their claim, such data was not forthcoming. At the time of writing this, they still have not produced any publicy available data against which to test their claim.

Indeed, that claim has to be questioned since, in your article, Mr Ochoa is quoted as saying “When it comes to expressing emotion and intonation, we need sentiment analysis, which is not there yet but may well be in ten years time”. Either his company has already matched the quality of professional human interpreters, who take such tasks in their stride, or it hasn’t. Which is it?

Suffice to say, I would argue that we should be sceptical of their claim and subsequent predictions. His idea that we just need to add in sentiment analysis ignores the fact that research done since the early 1990s shows that interpreters explain, co-ordinate who can talk, summarise, change language register, reformulate, adjust pronoun use and clarify. And that’s just the tip of the icebergI would invite Mr Ochoa and his company to spend more time learning what interpreters do.

What actually is the question?

The final flaw in the article is its imprecision. The title of the article asks “can computer translators ever beat speaking in a foreign tongue?” The answer to that will be “no” for as long as computer translation or interpreting doesn’t give people the same access to the culture, politeness, and expectations that we gain when putting in the effort to learn a language.

If you had asked “will computers ever replace human translators?”, the answer would depend on the skill, field, and expertise of the human translator and what the translation will be used for.

If you had asked “will computers ever interpret better than professional human interpreters?”, the answer would depend on how we understand what interpreters do and whether we believe computers can ever gain the situational, social and cultural awareness that should be the stock in trade of any professional human interpreter.

Three very different questions would have led to three very different answers and three fascinating articles. It is just a pity that your article didn’t manage to cover any other these topics fairly, leading to confusing and misleading results.

Fixing the Issue

Apart from taking the example of The Guardian and making sure that interpreting and translation are no longer conflated, I would like to ask that you review the sources you approach for such articles.

For quotes on machine translation, it’s worth going to universities like Dublin City University (Prof Andy Way and his team are superb). For quotes on interpreting or translation, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting is an excellent UK source. For a realistic appraisal of speech translation technology, go to the team behind the IWSLT2020 conference.

I am happy to suggest sources for future articles myself, especially as I had to hunt them down for my recent book. Feel free to drop me an email at and I will either put you in touch with an expert (with their permission) or give you a quote myself.

It’s worth getting this stuff right. People’s jobs and future are at risk.

Being the First Glaswegian to English Interpreter: Ten Years on

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 20, 2020

Ten years ago this week, I was recovering from the strangest, craziest week of my life so far. My visits to a bingo hall, a pub, a live TV studio and a radio studio would give me some incredible stories to tell. They would also see me feature on national news, several national newspapers, live TV and radio stations in the UK and Canada. This is how that week changed me and affected my interpreting

The Story so Far

It all began with the BBC coverage of a company called Today Translations, who were looking for a Glaswegian to English interpreter. While I grew up in Lanarkshire, about 15 miles from Glasgow, my Glaswegian was still strong enough to interpret. Since it was early in my career, I gave it a try and sent off my then-standard CV and covering letter. For months, nothing happened.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, I heard that I had been chosen for the job. That was good enough, since I really needed paid work, but what would happen next simply blew me away.

A Journalist, a Bingo Hall and a Pub

In an effort to get as much publicity from the story as possible, Today Translations arranged with a freelance journalist to come to interview me. We met in Glasgow and I did some test interpreting with two old ladies we met in a bingo hall, before retiring with him to a local pub for an informal interview.

That was odd enough but more was to come.

After several national newspapers picked up the story, suddenly TV and radio stations were interested. First, STV (a national TV station) sent a cameraman and crew to the church that allowed me to use some space for an office. They interviewed me as part of a short item for the six o’clock news. Next, I was invited to go on a live show from the same company, called The Hour. So I headed to the studio and my wife grabbed a later train to meet me there.

Just after I left makeup and before my wife had even arrived, I got another call, this time from the BBC. As soon as my slot was recorded, my wife and I went for a quick dinner and then hopped over to the local BBC studios for me to record a radio spot.

That sounds more glamourous than it was. I was on my own in a tiny studio, patched into the rather hostile host in Manchester. The spot was eventually broadcast at about 4am, in between an item on dead grey squirrels and a cat with its head stuck in a tin can.

A couple of days later, I ended up doing a radio interview from home, this time for CBC Radio Canada. That was probably the lightest and most fun recording.

Sadly, only the newspaper coverage has survived online, leaving me with nothing but memories of tie mics that were bolted to the ground and producers who seemed to be able to appear from nowhere and disappear as quickly.

The Follow-Up

Today, I am still kicking myself that, with all that coverage, I didn’t really have a business website or really much of an online presence that could have benefitted. As of today, I have received precisely no paid jobs for doing Glaswegian and I haven’t heard from Today Translations for at least 8 years.

Today Translations, if you’re there and you still exist, I’d be happy to work for you again.

So, by some measures, nothing came of all that coverage, apart from the chance to tell the story at an ITI conference. And that is sad.

On the other hand, I can say for sure that my week in the limelight gave me a much needed lesson in dealing with the media and especially in the strange art of crafting sound bites that make it into newspapers.

That has served as the basis for interpreting at conferences covered by the press, drafting open letters for my national association to send to press and government, writing articles for magazines aimed at my clients and generally having a better understanding of the weird world of journalism.

Would I do it again?

I would absolutely do it again any time and I am very open to giving interview on interpreting, including the prospects for speech translation gadgets taking our jobs. Only this time, I would be ready to make the most of any coverage that might come.

The Real Difference Between Interpreting and Translation

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 11, 2020

Yesterday, the world was alight with praise for Sharon Choi, the interpreter of Oscar winner, Bong Joon Ho. And there is no doubt that she deserved it.

A few journalists however, through habit or lack of knowledge, called her a “translator”, which annoyed a good few interpreters. If your business is to make an impact with a wider audience, it really helps to know which service you need when. Sadly, the typical advice you get doesn’t always help.

Mostly, people tend to say that translators work with written language and interpreters work with spoken language. This is kind of true but discriminates unfairly against sign language interpreting and leaves some important gaps.

The Usual Definition Doesn’t Work

For example, if you are offering a chat system for customer service and you want to be able to deal with live queries from all your customers, no matter which language they speak, you might think you will need translators. Actually, some companies have found that, if short chats need to be turned into another language, interpreters can give better results than translators, since they are used to making decisions at high speed.

Similarly, you might think that creating the script for dubbing a film in another language would be a job for an interpreter, as it involves spoken language. Actually, it’s really a job for specialist translators, since both the original and translated scripts are written texts.

There’s a better way

Here’s a simpler and more accurate way to determine if you need a translator or interpreter:

Translators work on texts;

Interpreters work at events or meetings.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a film script, a contract or a website, texts are the preserve of translators. They tend to do their work after something has been written down and outside of the specific situation the text will be used for.

Interpreters do their work in front of an audience, while the situation is taking place. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Oscar acceptance speech, a negotiation or a meeting with the manager. It’s even interpreting if the interpreter isn’t physically there. If you are delivering a webinar or remote training or having a Zoom call with a supplier or client, if the meeting or event is still going on while the person is working, they are almost certainly an interpreter.

Just ask one question

This means that you just need to ask a single question:

Will the person be doing their work at the same time as I am on this or will their work come after mine?

If you need someone to turn your speech into British Sign Language or Swahili or French while you are speaking, you need interpreters. If it has been neatly typed up and you then need someone to turn that transcript into British Sign Language or Swahili or French, you need a translator.

If you need someone to turn English into French or German or Dutch during a meeting with a client or a conference on your industry, you need an interpreter. If you need someone to turn the English brochures and advertising materials into French or German or Dutch, you need a translator.

Just the beginning

Of course, knowing the difference between interpreting and translation is just the beginning. You still need to know whether to use an agency or hire a consultant and you will still need help to get the right team.

There are lots of useful guides available, like this quick guide. You can also drop me an email for help.

If you’d like to go deeper into the nitty-gritty of the difference between the two, watch out for an upcoming post on my research blog.