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The Pleasure of Looking Outwards

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 29, 2018

I have recently attended two events. The first was ScotExport18, organised by Scottish Enterprise. Largely driven from the stage, with a range of inspiring experts and speakers, it seemed aimed mostly at newer exporters – business seeing contact with the wider world as a track to properity and growth.

The second event was an event run by CBI Scotland, that challenged businesses of all sizes to see Scotland regain its position as a trading nation. Variously hashtagged as #TradingNation2018 and #TradingNations2018, it paradoxically had more traditional speeches but provided more spaces for businesses to discuss issues with each other.

While each event was different, the same themes came through in both. Businesses are actively looking to export and at every stage, they need to help of mentors, government agencies and professionals. Expertise exists but is not always easy to find or access and different sectors have different requirements.

While a couple of weeks ago, I pointed to the lack of any specific language industry experience at those events, I now see things slightly differently. Yes, translators and interpreters and their associations do need to step up and gain a voice in the commercial world but the comparitive lack of knowledge of the sector is an opportunity, not a threat.

The media might like to flag up xenophobia and fear but, among large sections of the business community, the opposite attitude is prevailing. Many businesses want to work abroad, creating opportunities and jobs both here and there. As businesses export, economies grow and horizons expand.

So perhaps it’s time to dial down the negativity and turn off the heckling. If the excitement at ScotExport and Trading Nations is anything to go by, there is huge growth potential left in the UK Language Sector. Who’s up for exploring?

#ScotExport and the missing language sector

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 13, 2018

This time last week, I attended the excellent ScotExport 2018 event, run by Scottish Enterprise. Among the useful sessions on building your international network, exporting for the first time and (oh yes!) Brexit, there was cautious optimism in the air that Scottish companies can still find ways to thrive, no matter the economic and political weather.

We heard from immigration lawyers, tax experts, experienced exporters, and even a government minister. We heard about legislation, customs procedures, cultural awareness and even the value of Scottish kitsch (apparently kilts and whiskies still pull in clients).

But there was a topic that was mentioned but had no actual experts speaking. While many of the speakers mentioned the dreaded “Language Barrier” and offered helpful tips about circumventing it (mostly involving alcohol and karaoke), there were precisely zero actual language industry people on-stage. This was a giant elephant in the room.

There are two reasons why that is a problem:

  1. Without the language industry, most exporting and importing stops. From translating manuals and contracts to enabling businesses to negotiate deals by supplying expert interpreting, languages make exporting work. Low visibility for the sector at key events like that one not only does the sector a disservice but risks selling the myth that the UK sucks at languages. Yes, we have a very low rate of second language learning but we have a strong and vigorous language services sector, manned by those rare Brits who took the time to learn other languages and by thousands of nationals of other countries who have made the UK home.
  1. An event on exporting with no space for language experts can lead to businesses getting bad or limited advice. While, for the most part, the export experts said all the right things, some of the strategies mentioned were a bit on the risky side. Yes, you can find an interpreter once you arrive in a country but unless you know where to find the good ones, you are as likely to get a keen amateur as an actual professional. To save their blushes, and their bank balance, it is vital that businesses get the right advice on how to find the right interpreters and translators when it matters most.

Whether you are a business keen to export or a language professional wondering when export shows will feature translators and interpreters, the message is the same:

There’s no such thing as a language barrier; just opportunities to win new markets. When exporting businesses work with with expert translators and interpreters, there are no limits to what can happen next.

 

 

And if you are looking for advice on how to best use translation and interpreting as part of your export strategy, it’s time we had a chat. Drop me an email to find out more.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Signs of a GDPR Fakespert

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 26, 2018

Hello and welcome to the 2018 edition of The Millenium Bug. Today, we will be looking at GDPR fakesperts. What’s a fakespert? If an expert is someone who makes their money off the back of having real knowledge of a subject and helping people make effective decisions, a fakespert is someone whose only skills involve repacking generic advice into mega-courses, only available if you sign up for their mailing list (and pay £99.95).

With GDPR coming into force across the EU in May, there has been plenty of scope for real experts to make their mark (thank you Information Commissioner’s Office here in the UK) and for fakesperts to don their shiniest suits and sell their stuff.

How do you tell the difference? Here is a rather cheeky guide to what to look for in a GDPR fakespert.

  • Fakesperts conspicuously don’t mention availability of ICO guidance 

The first sign of a fakespert is that the sell themselves as the be-all-and-end-all, fountain of knowledge and never, ever mention their sources. Here in the UK, anyone who doesn’t mention that the best and fullest information is found on the ICO website is likely a fakespert. The real experts will mention the ICO and sell their services as distilling the screeds of ICO advice into simple, easy-to-apply practices for your business.

  • The closest they have ever been to SARs is feeling out of breath once

This is a bit of a data protection in-joke. An SAR (Subject Access Request to give it its Sunday name) is a request filed by someone who wishes to know what personal information an organisation holds on them. At the moment, they cost £10 in the UK and, depending on the organisation can cost much, much more to actually do.

If someone has never seen, much less had to manage SARs, it is likely that their expertise in data protection law and GDPR is more theoretical than practical. Even though SARs are thankfully rare, you probably want someone who has had the “joy” of helping a company through the existing legislation to help you through the new rules.

  • Until last week, they thought the ICO were the people who ran the Olympics 

A proper GDPR expert will know the name of the organisation responsible for data protection in your country and will definitely be familiar with their materials and guidance. If, for example, they get them mixed up with the governing body of an event where people win medals for the marathon, they will not be helpful to you in the long run [pun intended].

  • Their only training is a £29.99 course, which they are now repackaging into a £99.99 expert briefing 

GDPR is complex. It’s principles are relatively straightforward but their application is varied and depends on so many factors that it makes your head spin. Real GDPR experts, even if they haven’t yet led a company through existing requirements, will have spent days trying to get their head round the relevant laws and their application to your country.

The best of the best will already have a background in a role that would have involved expertise in existing legislation. They might be accountants, info security managers, data protection officers, lawyers or something similar. Sometimes, there might be someone in your specific field who has done their homework but it will pay to make sure that they are getting their training from the right places.

  • They are happy to sell you generic advice but won’t even consider coming to your office to help out in person 

A few bullet points with platitudes about “keeping records up-to-date”, “having clear opt-ins” and “getting a good privacy policy” aren’t enough for you to make the right decisions. What might those general principles mean to you? How do they apply in your situation?

It’s likely that you need a helping hand, rather than a teacher’s blackboard. If the most you can get from someone is a smart-looking video and a 5 point plan, keep your credit card in your pocket. At very least, you will need someone who can give you specific answers to you specific questions, even if those answers are “we don’t know yet.”

Just as the Millenium Bug turned semi-decent programmers into megabucks consultants, there is a real danger that GDPR will turn fly-by-night operators into Data Protection Gurus. I am anything but a GDPR expert. I am a consultant interpreter. But together we can make sure that we bypass the fakesperts and spend cash wisely on getting the advice and help that will not only ensure we pass the legal checks but run a much more streamlined, efficient business.

Eventbrite and the Power of User Revolt

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 23, 2018

While I was away enjoying the delights of Vienna and the BP18 conference (blog post coming soon), a  storm broke out among events professionals on social media. Here was my first glimpse of it.

Screencapture of Facebook update from Alan Stevens

The upshot was simple: Eventbrite claimed the right to come to any event where their software was used and to film and/or record everything that went on for their own promotional use. In short, the content created at the event belonged to them, not the organisers or the speakers.

Needless to say, when this went public, the events management world went crazy. Within a few days, the #eventbrite hashtag on Twitter was full of complaints, demands for information and competitors showing how their services were better. Yesterday, this response came from their head office account. (Name of tweeter redacted)

Screencapture of tweet from Eventbrite

The offending clauses would noticeably disappear from the terms used in the UK and US.

The users won.

Now that we are beginning to ask tough questions about the power and responsibility of technology companies, this one decision stands out. When users make enough noise, companies do change their practices. A few tweets or posts in the right place and behaviour changes.

Not only does this  story remind us of the power of users, it should serve as a warning to all businesses to respond to client problems before their reputation is threatened. Just because your lawyers told you that your Terms of Service are legally good, that doesn’t mean that they are the right ones for you and your users. So how helpful are your terms?