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The Death of Generic

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 23, 2018

My wife and I recently sent quite serious complaints to a local bus company. We both got a generic “your comment has been noted” response. Call up many companies and you will hear dodgy hold music and the words “your call is important to us. You are being held in a queue.” The same bland responses. The same angry customers. Given all that can be done with social media and personalisation, generic is dead.

Every single marketplace is crowded. There are literally hundreds of companies doing exactly what yours does. Unless you stand out, you will lose customers. It’s as simple as that.

Why are so many shops closing on the High Street, while others in the same street fluorish? It has nothing to do with price. It has everything to do with being unique.

The unique, the different, the customer-focussed, they all win. The generic, the seemingly uncaring, the bland, they are dying out.

If your company has recently adopted a technology because everyone else uses it, you are already too late. If your customers don’t get what makes you different to everyone else, all there is left to compete on is price. And no-one ever wins that race.

Generic is dead. It’s time to be special, to treat each customer individually, to deal with each complaint well and to market in a way that says something to the precise kind of person you need to convince.

Generic is dead. What happens next is up to you.

 

 

I don’t believe there is any such thing as a generic or typical conference. As a consultant interpreter, I create bespoke interpreting teams to make your next event achieve more than you could imagine. Sounds good? Let’s chat.

A Quick Fix for Your Company’s Language Itch

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 22, 2018

It’s the time of the year where parents and students in the UK to see the results of all their hard work over the past year as the exam results come flying in. Alongside the predictable debates whether exams are getting easier, we now have some interesting discussions over the differences in the subjects that students are choosing. This year, for example, we found that once again, fewer pupils in England and Wales took exams in foreign languages than in the year before. Now businesses are beginning to feel the pinch.

Fewer people with foreign languages means fewer people who can help you win business abroad. Less business abroad means slower growth and less revenue for the business. so what can you do?

It turns out that, despite the entirety of the UK being bottom of the class for language learning, we actually have a surprisingly strong language industry. So, while it might be getting harder to recruit local engineers who speak fluent German, there are lots of excellent translators and interpreters with German who can help in the short-term.

How do you find them? This is a topic I have covered before but it helps to go over the basics.

It always helps to start with you national translators and interpreters association. Here in the UK, ITI, our leading association, has an excellent directory listing all their qualified members, which is searchable according to language and specialism.

Like any other service, you should expect the translators and interpreters working for you to be qualified and verified. Starting with members of a local professional association is the perfect start.

If you don’t have a local professional association, it’s worth using your network. Ask those who work for the same company who they use. Here, you need to be very careful. If they get all their websites translated by Bob from Accounting or ask Sally from Sales to interpret for them, take a step back. If, on the other side, they have had great work from a local agency or an expert consultant, then definitely take their advice.

Now, since you are reading this, you can actually skip those two steps since you already know a consultant interpreter … me! My job as a consultant is to make sure that I don’t just deliver great interpreting, I can build teams of interpreters and translators to make sure that your projects go even better than planned.

So there you have it. While the UK might not be top of the league for language learning, we do have a very healthy language services sector. If your business is looking to grow abroad or start exporting, drop me an email and I will create the team you need to succeed.

 

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.

 

Everything you need to know about untranslatable words

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 19, 2018

They don’t exist.

That’s it.

 

 

Yeah, I know, that’s kind of disappointing but it’s true.

Throw “manscaping” at any of the interpreters I work with and ask them how to say it in another language and they will not shrivel up and tell you it’s impossible.

I don’t work with interpreters who look at words and run away shrieking “that’s impossible.”

They will probably say those immortal, almost stereotypical translator/interpreter words: “it depends on context.”

Come across “manscaping” at an academic philology conference and the interpreters will handle it one way. Throw them it during an international convention on the male beauty industry and they will deal with it differently.

Same with “sobremesa“, “esprit d’escalier” or literally any other “untranslatable word” you care to mention.

None of them are worthy of the name because interpreting isn’t about finding the word for “irn-bru” in German or the English for “laïque”. Interpreters produce language based on meaning, intention, purpose and, yes, context.

That’s why we take as much interest in what you are trying to do at your next meeting as we do in the terminology you use. That’s why knowing the agenda and the goals of the meeting are just as important (if not more so) than knowing your preferred German word for “dumper truck”.

What you need to know about every single article on untranslatable words, apart from this satirical one, is that they are all poor simplifications of what translation or interpreting actually are. You can safely use them for entertainment and nothing else.

And when you really want to understand what is going on, when your business success depends precisely on your presentation being as persuasive in French as it is in English, drop me an email.

When You Only See Giants

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 16, 2018

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio

The world is dominated by the power and the discourse and the strategies of the giants. In every field, a relatively small number of multinationals strut to the front of the stage and render every other struggling, striving business mere bit part players. We might think that, but we would be wrong.

Take the events industry. As in every industry, there are huge corporates, constantly vying for attention. Faced with this power, what do the smaller entities do? They specialise, they innovate, the offer unparalleled customer service. They break the rules and the create experiences that leave clients desperate for more.

Here in the UK, there are a handful of giant High Street banks. But their hegemony is under threat, not because of regulation or legislation but by a new generation of nimble, responsive small banks. Faced with the power of the banking giants, these smaller entities are specialising, innovating, offering unparalleled customer service.

The story repeats in so many industries.

And yet, in translation and interpreting, an industry that is, by any measure, actually dominated by the individual supplier, the sole trader and the micro boutique agency, there is still the temptation to focus on the will and might of the giants, who are far fewer and who, despite all their strutting on the stage, are still at the whim of the individual translator and interpreter.

Take the research of Common Sense Advisory into the “Language Services Market”. To even qualify to take part in their survey, an entity must have “two or more full-time employees, a minimum level of revenue that varies by country, and visible market activity” (The Language Services Market:
Research Methodology 2018).

It may be a neat methodological trick to make the research more manageable but it is deeply problematic. Excluding the individual freelancer means explicitly leaving out the people who are adding the most value across the industry and deliberately sidelining any data and ideas produced by the most flexible, creative and innovative part of the industry.

(Only a real cynic would point out that the segment of the language services market surveyed corresponds almost perfectly with the target market likely to pay for any reports sold.)

The problem with only seeing the giants is that the giants don’t see everything. Go to any conference for professional translators and interpreters and within five minutes, you will notice a trend for the more experienced and more highly skilled translators and interpreters to push for their own direct clients, ignoring precisely the entities who would qualify for the CSA survey. Go to events aimed at interpreting buyers and you will discover that there actually seems to be a shortage of specialists able to deliver when it really matters.

There may well be large multinational corporations hungry to get millions of words translated quickly with minimum cost, but equally there are companies now publicly saying that they only want to work with freelancers directly. There are big companies looking to leverage the power of neural machine translation but there are others still looking for pure human creativity. There are companies hungry for remote, on-demand interpreting and there are others for whom carefully organised in-person meetings still matter. To only see one side and not the other is to risk being blind-sided.

It may be hard to capture the trends and innovation of individual freelancers but the long-standing work of professional associations such as ITI, CIoL and by researchers across the world shows that it is by no means impossible. The biggest barrier is will, not skill.

No-one who wants to know a sector can or should ignore the work of its giants. No-one who carries out market surveys can or should ignore the trends among those creating the work that powers the market. You don’t get to know a market by ignoring any side of it.

This is why I am deeply cynical of any forecasts that this or that technology will render prior art obsolete. Markets are too complex for that and clients to heterogeneous. This is why I am deeply suspicious of any market report that excludes individual suppliers. This is why I would love to speak at a forum aimed at the giants of translation and interpreting and explain the world to them from the perspective of an individual consultant.

This is why I am deeply cynical now of any research that only takes note of the views of companies above a certain revenue level. Because right here, in the land of the small fry and the one-person band, that’s where the energy is.

In-person, remote and machine interpreting: A challenge

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 6, 2018

Everyone had heard of the Turing test. The idea there is to see if a chat bot can pass as human. What if there were a similar test or competition for machine interpreting?

To make life interesting and fair, I would like to suggest that we have a single, authentic event but supply interpreting in the same language pairs provided by professional human interpreters in person, professional human interpreters via a remote interpreting platform that allows the interpreters to have a video feed, and one or more machine interpreting solutions.

It would then be a simple matter of providing one audio channel for each of the human teams (one in-person, one remote) and any machine interpreting software being tested. The audience could then choose to listen to their feed of their choice and record their impressions.

Vitally, they would be asked to suggest which channel was which (human in-person, human remote, machine(s)). Their impressions could then be cross-checked by looking at which channels were listened to the most.

As too many machine interpreting developers have discovered, laboratory results are simply not a reliable guide to real-world performance. The only way to truly test the state of machine interpreting and make useful improvement is to run a field test. And, my view is that the field test should be as realistic and comprehensive as possible.

This is why I would suggest the following setup for the event:

2 hours of simultaneous interpreting, alternative between languages every 20-30 minutes (so interpreting English to German then German to English then back again) followed by,

a 1-2 hour factory tour (Wi-Fi signal not guaranteed) with the audience hearing on a system similar to the commercially available tour guide systems followed by returning to the conference hall for,

a 1-2 hour discussion with the questions unknown beforehand to any of the teams or the speakers but still on the themes covered by the event.

The two sessions in the conference hall would, ideally be live-streamed, to get the reactions of those outside the event. Following the success of the Heriot-Watt University Multilingual Debate, it should be possible to put on a conference that would be interesting in its own right and otherwise identical to one the interpreters would normally work at. This breadth of work represents work that will be familiar to most freelance conference interpreters.

In fact, there is no real reason why a company could not use such an event to give an insight into their products. A whisky company could talk about their environmental policies, fishing industry representatives could talk about regulations and give a tour of a working boat, a manufacturing company could showcase their innovation.

Since few clients have large pre-aligned bilingual databases, I would also suggest that every one of the teams receive identical briefing documents from the client. And, of course, if a speech doesn’t arrive on time and some creativity is needed, that just adds to the realism.

Given what we know about interpreter motivation, the interpreters and AV team should be paid at their normal rates and should be chosen by a consultant in the same way as they would be chosen for a normal job.  There should perhaps also be some sort of monetary award for the winners too, to encourage further developments.

I believe that this would not only give us an accurate view of where machine interpreting is but would encourage developments in the field, showcase excellent intepreting and provide a platform for a company with interesting products to show what they do. There would likely be significant press interest, just as there has been when machine translation companies claim to match humans or when literary translators are pitched against their digital counterparts.

It should not be difficult to find a venue to host it and I am sure that any of the good interpreting AV companies would relish the challenge of finding a way to keep the test fair and hide the identity of who was on each channel, even during the factory tour.

It would just need a corporate sponsor and a company or organisation willing to be guinea pigs. If you know anyone who would be interested in playing any role, please drop me an email. I would welcome any feedback on the idea.

 

 

 

The problem with receiving interpreting via mobile apps

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 4, 2018

We are all getting used to doing everything online. As a father of three (with one on the way), it is hard to explain just how important online shopping, online flight check-in and online travel booking have become. Yet, for all the leaps we have seen in technology, there are some things that should really stay offline.

Take high-level meetings. For all the deserved concern about the environmental costs of transport, it is still pretty normal to see a businessman from New Zealand fly to mainland Europe to discuss a deal with a company whose representatives might come from different ends of the same country.

Despite Skype and Telegram and Whatsapp, the big, important meetings still take place in person. There’s just something about being in a room together that makes a difference. And there is something about the security of knowing that no-one outside that room can hear what is going on.

For important meetings, privacy and security are a huge concerns. That’s why interpreters sign Non-Disclosure Agreements. That’s why, as a consultant interpreter, I have a public key so I can receive encrypted files. That’s why, for the moment at least, I would recommend that clients keep with the tried-and-tested system of receiving simultaneous interpreting via an infrared (IR) setup and eschew receiving interpreting via mobile phone apps.

This recommendation holds even if every other part of the interpreting process is carried out following best practice.

It’s not that the technology isn’t impressive. It is still amazing that we can and do beam high-quality sound (like podcasts) across continents and can use Wi-Fi networks for sending interpreting and receiving output. But, for meetings where security is a concern, you just can’t beat the advantages of the traditional IR setup. How so?

Unlike Wi-Fi, the traditional setup requires proprietary equipment. It sounds old-school but if the only way to hear the interpreting is with a headset that you get from the sound guy, only people who talk to the sound guy can get a headset. That instantly makes things more secure and, as anyone who has used traditional interpreting equipment will tell you, the signal simply does not leave the room. If you go out of the line of sight of the transmitter, you lose signal. What sounds like a restriction ensures that your meeting is secure.

Since the headsets are dedicated to a single use, they tend to do well at keeping their charge all day. Compare that to any mobile phone, which your delegates will use to listen to the interpreting, check their email, update Facebook and so on, and the difference is clear. For mobile apps to be feasible, the event will need LOTS of mobile phone charging points. Very modern but pretty pricey.

Having delegates receive interpreting through an app also means that you lose control of the security of the feed. Not only is it hard work for the tech to receive, encrypt, broadcast, decrypt and play the signal in real-time (so it is tempting to skip the encryption and decryption parts) but you can’t guarantee what else might be on the mobiles used by your delegates. You simply can’t tell what security risks they are carrying.

The solution might be to  hand out dedicated mobile phones that you have configured. That comes with its own costs means that you will suddenly have lots of internet-enabled devices to maintain, update, fix, and teach delegates to use. That’s before you take account of delegates having special needs that they have setup their own devices to cope with.

As with remote interpreting, the problems with receiving interpreting using the internet are mostly not technical but psychological and behavioural. Even if the tech for receiving interpreting over app was 100% secure, there are too many other variables for it to be an ideal solution for any meeting where security is a concern, at least for the time being.

 

Skills to Learn before you Learn to Code

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 7, 2018

With Event Technology, Neural Machine Translation and Remote Simultaneous Interpreting are all vying for publicity, we would be forgiven or thinking that the only choice is between jumping on the high-tech bandwagon and living in a shack on the plains. Many authorities have pleaded for all children to learn to code. The logic is simple, you are either learning how to handle data or you are just part of the data. But might there be a flaw in that logic?

Why Tech Fails

As much as the innovators would never admit it to their angel investors, history is littered with tech that went nowhere. To the well-known flops of laserdiscs and personal jetpacks can be added the expensive failures of nuclear-powered trains and boats and the hundreds of “instant translation” websites that promised to leverage the “power of bilinguals”. Just because a tech exists, that doesn’t mean it will actually make a meaningful difference, just ask the inventor of the gyrocopter.

While the stories of some technologies are unpredictable, there are others where it was clear that there as too wide a gap between what the engineers could do and what the market actually would accept. Take nuclear powered ships. While nuclear submarines are an important part of many navies, the reticence of many ports to let a ship carrying several kilos of activated uranium dock (never mind refuel or take on supplies) spelled the end of that particular dream.

Other times, technology has flopped due to a simple failure to understand the dimensions of the problem. Take those “instant translation” or “interpreting on the go” websites. Almost always the brainchildren of monolinguals who have a severe case of phrasebook-aversion, they all crash and burn when the founders realise that “bilingual” is a very loose concept and those with actual interpreting expertise are highly unlikely to want to spend their time saying the Hungarian for “where is the toilet?” or the Spanish for “I have a headache and can’t take ibuprofen” forty times a day.

The Problem with Machine Translation

To this motley crew, it seems that we have to add more than a few denizens of modern machine translation. With some leading experts busy telling us that translation is just another “sequence to sequence problem” and large software houses claiming that managing to outdo untrained bilinguals is the same as reaching “human parity” (read that article for the truth behind Microsoft’s claim), it is becoming plain that the actual nature of translation is eluding them.

The most common measure of machine translation performance, the BLEU score, simply measures the extent to which a given translation looks like a reference text. The fact that these evaluations and those performance by humans on machine translation texts are always done without any reference to any real-life context should make professional translators breathe more easily.

Only someone who slept through translation theory class and has never actually had a paid translation project would be happy with seeing translation as just a sequence to sequence problem. On the most basic, oversimplified level, we could say that translators take a a text in one language and turn it into a text in another. But that misses the point that every translation is produced for an audience, to serve a purpose, under a set of constraints.

The ultimate measure of translation quality is not its resemblance to any other text but the extent to which it achieved its purpose. If we really want to know how good machines are at translation, let’s see how they do at producing texts that sell goods, allow correct medical treatment, persuade readers, inform users, and rouse emotion without any human going over their texts afterwards to sort out their mistakes.

Skills to Learn before you Learn to Code

All this shows is that there are key skills that you need to learn before you are set loose on coding apps and building social media websites. Before kids code, let them learn to listen so they can hear what the actual problem is. Before they form algorithms, let them learn how to analyse arguments. Before they can call standard libraries, let them learn to think critically. Let them learn and understand why people skills have to underpin their C skills and why asking questions is more important that creating a system that spoon-feeds you the answer.

I hope that, for our current generation of tech innovators, it isn’t too late. We absolutely need technology to improve but we also need there to be more ways for tech innovators to listen to what everyone else is saying. We could do with some disruption in how events are organised and run but the people doing it need to understand the reasons behind what we do now. Interpreting could do with a tech revolution but the tech people have to let interpreters, interpreting users and interpreting buyers sit in the driving seat.

If our time isn’t to be wasted with more equivalents of nuclear-powered trains, if we are to avoid Cambridge Analytica redux, we need monster coders and incredible listeners, innovators who are also thinkers, writers and macro ninjas. It may well be that one person cannot be both a tech genius and a social scientist but we need a world in which both are valued and both value each other.

It’s a world we can only build together.