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5 Big Questions to Ask Your Interpreting Agency

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 17, 2018

If you are buying interpreting, you will spend significant amount of cash on a service that can go wonderfully right … or dreadfully wrong. How can you tell in advance that things will work the way you need them too? While you can’t guarantee that the event will go perfectly, you can ask key questions that can give you a strong indication of what is likely to happen, especially if you are working with an interpreting agency.

As a consultant interpreter and freelance interpreter working for both direct clients and agencies, I thought it was time to give you five key questions that you can use to ensure that you get the best deal possible from your interpreting agency. Here they are:

  1. When will I know the names of the interpreters you have picked?

A bad interpreting agency will do its best to obfuscate any details of the interpreting team. While giving you direct contact with the team might be justified by saying something about secrecy (whose exactly?) or competition, you should seriously consider asking for the names of the interpreters and the city they are based in. Why?

With the names and cities of the interpreters in hand, you can spend five minutes looking them up to check that they have all the qualifications and experience that the agencies say they have. If the agency aren’t going to tell you the team until they arrive at the venue, you have to ask questions about their hiring process and the criteria they are using.

Another reason for knowing the team in advance is that you may need to book hotel rooms for them or check for dietary requirements. While some might argue that you should trust the agency to send you a good team, they really have nothing to hide and you have everything to gain by knowing the team in advance.

  1. What criteria do you use to select interpreters?

The answer to this should be really simple: experience (including their previous working relationship and feedback from clients), referrals from their trusted team of existing interpreters, association membership, qualifications, and availability are the big five.

The reality is that good agencies will default to something like those five. For a bad interpreting agency, it will all come down to who is the cheapest and who they can drag out of bed. In interpreting, cheapest is rarely, if ever, best.

  1. Are you a member of a trade association?

You can safely ignore any wooly reply that includes the letters “ISO”. What you are looking for is membership of a trade body in the languages services industry with a solid set of codes of conduct, not proof that the agency have consistent procedures is. Having great procedures means nothing if the team they send is rubbish!

ITI and ATC are the associations to watch for in the UK; ATA are the go-to in the US and there are similar bodies all over the world. Most countries will have some kind of association that allows interpreting agencies to be members. Don’t be shy about cross-checking their claims with the association itself. All of the big ones have online directories that allow you to check who their members are.

  1. Could you send me the link to your ProZ BlueBoard entry?

This is often country-dependent but many, if not most reputable interpreting agencies will be listed on the ProZ.com Blue Board. This lists what freelancers think of that particular company. A score of 5 indicates that freelancers are happy with them. If they score below 3 or their profile has been disabled or blocked, run away.

Why should you worry about what interpreters think of the agency you have chosen? Agencies with a good reputation tend attract excellent interpreters, who produce great results for you. Agencies with a bad reputation end up with the kinds of “interpreters” who might appear on TV as “fake interpreters”.

It is also worth looking for them on websites that discuss their payment practices and even ones that gather views from former employees. The more you know about the kind of company you are dealing with, the better. Companies with a bad payment history will usually deliver poor results.

  1. Can we arrange a quick Skype chat?

This might seem like an oddball but, in an age where there is a need for a website dedicated to listing people trying to scam, it is important that interpreting buyers take a similar precaution. One simple skype call to check that the agency is who they say they are and to gauge their level of helpfulness and accessibility can mean the difference between a great event and being caught in a scam.

The Million Pound Reason You Should Still Choose Human Interpreters

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 3, 2018

Imagine the scene:

 

It has been a long negotiation. The British company are keen to widen their client base and have managed to secure a meeting with an unbelievably big French buyer. The French buyer wants to secure a more robust supply chain and he knows that this company will deliver.

 

Both companies want a good result. Right now you wouldn’t know that.

 

Right now, they are locked in a corridor-stomping, wall-pointing, chart-explaining disagreement. And it’s not even over something complex. They have already sorted out packaging and delivery, size and spec. But right now they are arguing over quality statistics.

 

And right now, you are about to witness the turning point of the whole meeting, One interpreter, one word, one sudden realisation of what the real issue is.

 

“The interpreter believes there has been a misunderstanding.”

 

Those weren’t the exact words I used but the meaning is the same. Within less than five minutes, the disagreement was resolved (you will have to wait for my next book to read exactly how). Within less than two hours, clearance was given for a test order, which would be the last hurdle between the British company and a contract worth several million pounds.

 

The truth is, the success of most meetings depends on more than accurate interpreting. For meetings to work, you need interpreters who are sensitive to context, able to spot and resolve cultural miscues and shifts in nuance and professionals who are brave enough to make intelligent decisions.

 

One day, we might have apps that can deliver perfectly accurate interpreting. Between some languages and in some subjects, machine translation is already delivering acceptable results for written texts using controlled language. But what stands between you and the sale is rarely “accurate interpreting.” What you need to succeed is excellent interpreting.

 

And, for the foreseeable future you will need humans for that.

 

If your company is heading for a conference or meeting that just has to be right, I can build you an interpreting team that delivers when it matters most. Drop me an email to set up a free, no obligation skype meeting.

Why Social Science and Not Technology will Determine Your Company’s Future

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: December 18, 2017

Another day, another new technology grabbing the limelight. This year alone, we have seen Machine Learning, Neural Networks, Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies each vie for centre stage. And now, with the new fashion for AI specialists predicting when certain jobs will be replaced by robots (and always predicting that they will be last!), it looks as if all we need to do is strap ourselves to technology and let it pull us to a wonderful future. But is tech really all it takes for success?

 

In the face of AI, Machine Learning and the like, it helps to remember the plight of laserdisks, Betamax video recorders, minidiscs and jazz drives. All these represented technological advances. Each represented a step change in thinking and an improvement on the competition. All of them ended up on the junkyard of history, right next to PDAs and the portable CD player.

 

Whatever engineers might say, technology on its own is never enough to bring real change. Pity the poor company with a brand new product, only to see its competitors come out with a cheaper and less reliable version that has the face of a celebrity on the side of it. Few investors will plow cash into a concept that works wonderfully but requires large enterprises to convert wholesale from their existing legacy systems.

 

For technology to make a difference, it must be adopted. For it to be adopted, people must be convinced of its benefits. For people to be convinced, someone in the company selling the product has to have a good grasp of how people think and how they behave in groups.

 

Behold the power of social science. Like fine chocolate, social science comes in many flavours: from the heady delights of statistical demographics to the tempting subtlety of autoethnography. What all of social science shares in common is a commitment to study and understand people.

 

Historically, the biggest war within social science was the split between those who preferred quantitative studies with large data sets and complex statistics and those who preferred qualitative studies, which look more at individual and small group experience. Apart from a few dusty corners, that war is now over and the winner is: both sides. Yes, most social scientists will now tell you that, if you want to understand people you need both the big statistical data and the small group/individual perspective.

 

There is a lesson there for technology geeks, especially those fascinated by the power of Big Data. Statistics and data are powerful but personal experience and subjective ideas matter too. If your business is going to thrive, you will have to do more than harness big data; you will need to know how to persuade, encourage, serve and delight people.

 

It’s no wonder then that the highest converting marketing media are still face-to-face contact and word-of-mouth recommendations. Even with the rise of social media, we humans still love to look people in the eyes and spend time with them before we hand over our hard-earned cash. An in-person recommendation from a trusted friend will always carry more weight than a targeted Facebook advert.

 

The reality is that few new technological products live up to the utopian marketing created by their inventors. Those translation earbuds that function perfectly on that YouTube video will struggle in a crowded bar or when you can no longer be bothered to speak in a mechanical monotone and there are no producers around to ensure everyone behaves predictably. That shiny new tablet will run at breakneck speed … until you actually load your favourite apps onto it.

 

Technology is wonderful and, if used well, it can make real contributions to productivity and profit margins. But for those gains to be realised, you need social skills like leadership, trustworthiness and persuasion. For your business to succeed, you will need a social scientist’s head for understanding people and their predilections much more than you will need an engineer’s eye for a new piece of kit that could possibly be created.

 

By all means enjoy technology but put knowing and serving people first and you won’t go far wrong.

 

 

 

The Two Questions Everyone Forgets to Ask About Interpreting Assignments

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 24, 2017

If you have worked with professional interpreters you will know two things:

  1. Interpreting is not cheap.
  2. You really need them to interpret well.

The first of those two issues is the one that clients think about most. It is easy to start thinking ahead to their invoices and see if there is a way that you can reduce costs. And you can indeed reduce interpreting costs if you want to.

You might rely on “Bilingual Bob” (or Bobbie) who works in accounting and speaks decent French. You might download one of those phone apps and hope it works and that your visitors don’t mind sharing a single pair of wireless headphones.

Or you might see if you can find a cheaper interpreter somewhere. Maybe the equipment guys might get you a package deal or something.

But, as important as cash is, it’s the second of those two realisations above that you really need to think about. Few clients ever think about the risks and rewards involved in interpreting when they book interpreters. It all comes down to two basic questions:

  1. If this all goes wrong, how much will it cost you?
  2. If this all goes perfectly, how much will it make you?

When you are looking at interpreting quotes, those are the questions you need to think about most. The first question tells you the risks involved in the assignment. In this month alone, I have done one assignment where poor quality interpreting could have led to poor safety practices being implemented in factories across Europe and another where poor interpreting could have lost a deal worth tens of millions of Euros.

On the flip side, the second question tells you about the rewards of good interpreting. I did one job this time last year where two days of interpreting led to a multi-year, multi-million pound contract and one this year where excellent interpreting allowed different subsidiaries of the same company to share their best environmental practices.

There are always risks and rewards involved in interpreting. The question is, how much are you prepared to pay to mitigate the risks and increase the chances of the rewards?

What Makes an Event International?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 26, 2017

International events are all the rage again. It seems that, if you want to attract savvy visitors, just being “national” won’t cut it. No matter how niche your event and how backwater your venue, if you slap “international” in the name, you will get immediate kudos and an uptick in visitors.

 

But what actually is an international event?

 

At its most basic, we could argue that as soon as someone from another country attends your event, it has instantly become international. But that is obviously silly. With air travel still relatively cheap and most European borders still open, having an “international guest” could simply mean that Joe Bloggs popped over on the ferry from Calais to come to your show because he had nothing better to do. Hardly something worth boasting about.

 

Well, maybe international means that a company or organisation from another country has come to visit. That’s better but still misses the point.

 

Having a sponsor from Belgium or a group coming from Japan isn’t really the same as the event itself being international. If your content, presentation and décor looks exactly like it did in the days when you were the “West Kilbride Fair for [whatever]” then the presence of a handful of international guests hasn’t really made a difference. In fact, they are pretty likely to go home wishing they never bought their air tickets in the first place!

 

What makes international events distinctive?

 

A truly international event is distinctive not so much in terms of the presence of some people from outside your country but in terms of the outlook of the event itself. It’s one thing to manage to persuade ten people from Spain to pop across for two days; it’s quite another to have a show that has a lasting impact on your visitors, no matter where they came from.

 

To do that takes much more than hanging the odd welcome sign in a different language or giving a passing acknowledgement that someone came to your event from outside the M25. International events that really work do two things right.

 

International Events Celebrate Cultural Diversity

 

Why does the Frankfurt Book Fair draw crowds year after year? Why do small, targeted European association events often produce better results than hulking faceless shows?

 

In both cases, cultural diversity is not just acknowledged; it is celebrated.  In our data-rich societies, answers to information questions are always at our fingertips. The strength of in-person events is in experience, not just information! And for people from a variety of cultures to have a great experiences, their unique contribution must be honoured and celebrated.

 

The very best international events encourage speakers and delegates to express their own cultural perspective and engage with those of others. Rather than slamming down a requirement to dress the same, speak English and sound like you just popped over on the tube, international events that make a difference create a space for people to experience different cultures and learn from them, which leads to the next key.

 

International Events Promote Linguistic Diversity

 

Don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming. Yes, it is pretty obvious. There really is no point in claiming the title of an “international event” if the only language you want to see or hear is English. In doing that, you hand over the privilege, power and control to native English-speakers and those who can pass for them.

 

Yes, English is an international language but even the most skilled second-language English-speaker will express themselves best in their native language. And, since we now know that nearly 60% of them will rarely or never buy in anything but their native language (source: Common Sense Advisory), making content and talks available in several languages will create a sales and results boost too.

 

If you are still wondering whether it is really worth the effort to promote linguistic diversity at your next event, just ask yourself which is experience would be better for you: being at an event where everything is happening in a language you learned in High School or being at the same event but hearing and seeing your language there.

 

It’s obvious isn’t it.

 

The Takeaway

 

The point of all this is simple. Yes, “international events” are in vogue but getting them right takes more than the name itself. A great international event that has an impact needs the services of translators and conference interpreters. If you would like to know how to put together the right package for your next truly international event, drop me an email.

What Nelson Mandela can Teach Business Owners

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 27, 2017

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” 
― Nelson Mandela

One of the most inspiring figures in history, Nelson Mandela’s legacy is simply incredible. Everyone knows about his  work in fighting apartheid and leading South Africa. Yet, as inspiring as he is, one of his pithiest quotes is often forgotten.

In a world driven by information and communication, it is striking how many companies still have the attitude that everyone speaks English, so professional translation and interpreting are pointless. The bare facts show them to be wrong.

The All Party Parliamentary Group for languages has shown that, in the United Kingdom alone, companies miss out on £48 billion worth of contracts each year due to a lack of language skills. Research from Common Sense Advisory has found that 75% of consumers prefer to buy in their native language and nearly 60% of consumers will never or only rarely buy from English-only websites.

And, no, machine translation is not enough to bridge the gap. We only need to peruse the numerous examples of poor machine translation found around the web (supreme court beef, anyone?) to see why professionals are still needed. When it comes to interpreting, the results are even more striking, as can be seen from this video of a so-called “translation earpiece” in action.

Human professionals will always deliver a better job. Only last year, I helped a company land a seven figure contract by smoothing out a cultural misunderstanding during an interpreting assignment. Machines won’t do that. At best, they just tell you what the person said.

Interpreting makes a difference. You will always be more convincing when working with a professional than you will be without them. If you are looking for your business to reach international markets and persuade buyers who don’t speak your language, it’s time we talked. Drop me an email to see the difference professional interpreter can make to you.

Donald Trump, Uber and the Rediscovery of Responsibility

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 22, 2017

Two stories have dominated my newsfeed over the past few days. In the first, Iranian interpreter, Nima Chitzas defended his choice to omit some content from a speech delivered by President Donald Trump at the United Nations. In the second, Transport for London has failed to renew Uber’s license to operate in the city.

As different as the two stories might be, they have one theme in common: responsibility.

In the first case, the interpreter’s justification of his decision is as interesting as the decision itself. His argument was that he could not relay content that he felt was untruthful and “against Iran”. In his mind, his responsibility to the “truth” outweighed any professional code of conduct that requires complete and impartial interpreting.

In the second case, as much as people are criticising the decision not to renew Uber’s license to operate, the grounds named by Transport for London in their decision seem to show that, for them, it was simply a matter of upholding existing licensing laws. From their point of view, any company that doesn’t play by the rules, doesn’t get to play the game. Being responsible in that case simply meant respecting the systems and regulations already in place, no matter how much of a disruptor you might want to be.

Whether we agree with either of those decisions, they remind us that every decision has consequences. Even the default “say everything” position upheld by many interpreters has consequences. Sometimes giving an unfiltered view of what was said can have direct and immediate consequences. We need only read a few accounts of the fate of warzone interpreters to learn that.

At other times, interpreters may have to stand up and defend their choice to do anything apart from presenting a close version of what the speaker said. No matter what we might think of Mr Chitzas, he stood up and took responsibility for his actions. We may not agree with his actions but by offering a justification, at least we can now understand the reasoning behind them.

Similarly, the Uber decision seems to be nothing more than the latest in series of long-running battles between those who want to disrupt industries by relying on increasingly casual and flexible labour and those who see this as a removal of workers’ rights. The very point of labour and employment law is to make sure that companies treat their staff responsibly. This responsibility is needed more than ever in the growing “gig economy.”

But what does this mean for businesses like event managers and interpreters?

No matter which sector we are in, we can never forget that technology does not erase the need for responsibility; it heightens it. We can disrupt all we like but we have to disrupt while respecting those already in the industry and while treating our colleagues, competitors and suppliers as valued partners.

This means that we need to understand the effects our actions have on others, whether positive or negative. It means being sympathetic to those who might lose out. It means being prepared to defend our decisions.  Our words, our decisions, and our business practices will inevitably make a difference to someone. Are we ready to carry that responsibility?

 

 

Interpreters Climb Inside Your Head for a Living

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 30, 2017

Yesterday, I talked about why preparing for an interpreting assignment involves a whole lot more than just looking up terminology. Today, I want to take that a bit further. As I am realising with this job especially, interpreters have to do more than understand what you are saying, we need to get inside your head.

 

There is one particular speaker at this event. When I read his speech, I can understand him on one level. When I watch him on YouTube, I understand him better but I will learn the most about him by doing deeper research on his writing, his affiliations and the things he has done in his work. Nine times out of ten, the trickiest terminological and phraseological issues are resolved by context, not by dictionaries. If I want to understand what someone is saying, I need to understand what they are trying to do with what they are saying.

 

For a trained interpreter, that is well-trodden ground. Most of us will have heard of or have been trained in speech act theory – the idea that people do things with the words they say. But when you are interpreting, you need to go even further than that. To interpret someone well, you need to really get a hold of why they are saying what they are saying and who they are saying it too. Even more, you need to be able to figure out the best way to project that to a brand new audience – one they might never meet or talk to personally.

 

To allow yourself to be interpreted is to trust someone to produce a version of what you said in another language that means the same thing somehow. They become your voice and your door to an entirely new culture. As long as you are being interpreted, you live in two (or more!) languages and cultures at once.

 

At this conference, it is clear that speakers will be trying to convince and argue, persuade and prompt, debate and describe. For our interpreting to even come close to working, we will need to figure out ways to allow them to do that an entirely different language, with entirely different ways of convincing, arguing, persuading, prompting, debating and describing. And all that while having no control over the pace or technicality or even clarity of the words we hear. It’s hard work but it is always worth it.

Another Look Behind the Scenes of Conference Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 29, 2017

The conference season has started again with a nice new conference landing on my plate. Better yet, I get to interpret at it alongside my favourite boothmate. I thought I would take the opportunity to give you another behind the scenes look at what it means to prepare for and deliver a conference interpreting job.

 

The first thing I need to talk about is preparation. While new interpreters might focus on terminology (and this job has lots!), the more I do this job, the more I realise that terminology is not the issue. Under all the words ending in –ism and hyphenated pairs are attempts to communicate something that matters.

 

The problem with concentrating too much on terminology is that it can get in the way of understanding the meaning. Yes, I did just say that!

 

For this conference, I am not just going to practice interpreting, gather terminology and the like; I am going to write short summaries of the arguments of every talk I am sent. It will take time but the practice of really getting to know someone’s argument, even memorising it, will help me no end in the booth. Besides, as every translator and interpreter knows, the meaning of any word is determined by its context.

 

The more you learn and understand about what a speaker is trying to do, and the better you learn to see through the parade of buzzwords, the better you can interpret. And it’s excellent interpreting, not just excellent terminological knowledge, that clients need and want.

How to Lose a Prospect in One Step

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 17, 2017

It’s really simple. In today’s always-on, super personalised society, as soon as you use automated messages you lose people’s interest. Sending mass emails, automated twitter DMs or even copying & pasting generic messages into LinkedIn or Facebook PMs will lose you leads and push people elsewhere.

It looks like a timesaver but it isn’t. It’s a lead killer.

It’s especially awful when you have just had a conversation with someone. Imagine having just discovered what someone could add to your business, looked at their services and planned an email to look at a purchase. Now imagine that just as you are about to look at buying they send you an obviously generic, mass-style message. Will that make you more likely or less likely to buy?

So why do it to your prospects?

Craft each communication. Tailor each email.

The only time generic works is when you are doing something generic. Selling is not generic. Neither is building up a relationship with a prospect. Until the moment when someone has volunteered to be part of a programme or process, they need to be treated as an individual.

And if you are reading this while setting up your twitter autoresponse or writing your mass LinkedIn message campaign, I do hope it will give you pause. If it doesn’t and you lose high potential leads, you will now know why.