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What to look for in interpreting agencies?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 4, 2019

There are times when approaching an interpreting agency will be the best option for your event. They offer convenience, a single point of contact and already have lots of interpreters on their books. But not all interpreting agencies offer good value for money, in fact some have built such a poor reputation that they will struggle to deliver the quality you need. So what should you look for? Here is my list:

  • Good interpreting agencies are members of professional associations

This is similar to one of the most important signs of a good interpreter but it is even more important for agencies. At least in the EU, there are professional associations in most countries that cover interpreting agencies. If they have been accepted for membership, you can at least know that someone is watching their ethics and you have a cheap and effective way to deal with any complaints.

Conversely, if they have no memberships and the only thing they can boast is adherence to some random ISO standard, steer clear! They might be good but it is just as likely that they are a fly-by-night operation whose actual knowledge of the industry and the required standards is very light.

Where there isn’t a relevant local association, check that the agency requires its interpreters to be members of an association or, even better, that they have association member interpreters on staff permanently.

  • Can you contact a named person?

This might seem a little odd but if an agency’s website doesn’t actually contain the names of anyone working for the company, it should be a red flag. For interpreting to work, it takes real teamwork between the client, the person managing the interpreting and the interpreters. If you have no idea who the project manager is or worse, get bundled to a different person each time, there is little chance that the event will go well. Good companies are happy to at least mention some key staff. If they don’t, it might mean that they have high turnover or just shovel every job around.

  • Are they interested in your event?

While it’s good to have systems and automation in place, if you feel that the agency are treating you as just another number, it’s time to look elsewhere. Sadly, this is pretty common with very large agencies who tend not to reward staff for paying particular attention to specific clients, unless that client comes with a huge budget. A good agency, no matter how busy, will show interest in what you want to achieve from your specific event and will build your interpreting team around that. If they seem not to care, take your cash elsewhere.

  • Will they tell you the names of the interpreters?

I know this might be controversial but if an agency cares more about ensuring that their interpreters can’t be poached than they do about clear communication, dump them. If they can’t trust their own interpreters to work professionally and so want to keep everything under wraps, then those interpreters should be nowhere near your international event.

Good agencies are proud of the teams they build and should be happy to tell you just how great those interpreters are. They should also know that great interpreting starts with great communication and sometimes, it’s quicker for the interpreters just to ask you some questions directly.

 

Ideal interpreting agencies get all these things right. They are members of professional associations, are open about their own staff team and the interpreters they use and they care about your event. To get the right agency, it helps to make all four of those criteria non-negotiable.

But are there more? Which criteria would you add to this list?

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.

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.

 

Do Monolingual Tech Conferences Make Sense?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 9, 2018

Almost every consultant interpreter will have been told at some point that conferences in tech or medicine tend to be English-only. “Everyone speaks English and interpreting is expensive so we just have the entire conference in English” say some organisers. While it seems to make financial sense, is it a good long-term decision?

Let’s start with a story.

I was interpreting at a negotiation. A French company were trying to get investment in their newest sure-fire, profit-making product. At least one of the two senior managers could have managed in English and the investor had decent enough French, so why did they hire me?

The problem wasn’t so much in terminology, although there were terminological differences, but in culture. The investor came from a culture where the point of a meeting was to quickly dive into the financial detail, especially the profit margins and earnings forecasts. He expected that everyone would want to get straight down to the figures and returns.

The French company were into building relationship, talking history, vision, and extolling the virtues of their community engagement. They needed an interpreter not just because of linguistic differences but to help them navigate the cultural difference.

English-only events exist because there is an assumption that people all know the same terms and so they can communicate perfectly. If the majority of the terms are the same in every language, there is no room for miscommunication, right?

Wrong! Just ask the Italian construction industry experts who fouled up a presentation of their company’s best ever project in front of hundreds of other industry bods because they presented in (broken) English, instead of Italian. Ask the British manufacturing company who almost lost a deal because they defined a word differently to a visiting buyer.

Terminology is just one part of language and often, it is the least relevant part. While it is possible to take the idea too far, it is well-known that different languages have different views of the world. A US company might look at a widget and see three parts to it, a company in Germany might see six. In some cultures, it is absolutely vital to show due respect to your hosts with a flowing, artful thank you at the top of your presentation; in others, that marks you out as a time-waster.

English-only events create an illusion of understanding and implicitly exclude ideas and thinking that don’t fit easily into English-language norms. For that reason English-only tech events block more innovations than they promote. How can machine translation experts learn to create more flexible and useful systems if they work, present and test in largely monolingual environments? Why else would so many companies chase after the low-value market for “instant interpreting on the go“, if not because their founders rarely speak anything but English?

The business case for English-only events is becoming weaker as time goes on. We know that people buy more, are more easily persuaded and learn more if they read and hear in their native language. Could it be that they think better and innovate more in that language too? And if that is the case, could it be that interpreting, rather than being a big expense could be the smartest investment that a company can make?

 

If you are looking at making that investment, this free course is designed to help you get the most out of it. Want advice right away? Drop me an email.

Should suppliers pay to speak at tradeshows?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 26, 2018

In the past year I have been invited to speak at two different, but equally prestigious tradeshows. Both attract an audience of my ideal clients and both are free to attend. But my invite to speak came with a catch, the organisers would love to have me speak … if I were only to purchase a stand at the event.

Now, let’s put this in context. As one lovely salesperson at one of those events made clear to me, the “buy a stand to speak” rule mostly applies to suppliers, especially “niche” ones. If you are a buyer or have already made your name, the floor is yours. If your business is in making buyers’ lives more comfortable and more successful, come with cash in hand, please.

Honestly, it is understandable. The truth is that suppliers go to tradeshows with selling in mind and the Return on Investment at any of these shows should easily outstrip the initial investment. Notice the “should“.

There are never any guarantees. Personally, I have seen some sessions at tradeshows where the speaker has obviously done everything they could to attract an audience (and probably paid a big chunk of their annual marketing budget for a stand) only to end up speaking to about three people, one of whom thought this was another session and only stayed because they were British.

And of course, if you are a smaller supplier, the likelihood is that your time in the limelight (if speaking to three people and a few moths can be seen as the limelight) means that noone is there on your stand. What you gain on the possibility of landing new business through speaking, you are losing in opportunity cost.

While I understand the underlying mathematics and logic of linking buying a stand with speaking, the speaker and buyer in me is growing sceptical. As a speaker, I know for sure that a need to sell will kill any talk and, if you have paid significant sums to speak, it will be tough to erase the need to sell from your presentation. Few speakers manage it and so encouraging a “buy a stand to do a talk” model is probably not in the interests of any tradeshow audience, who are there to learn, not to get the hard sell.

As a buyer (and yes I have looked to buy from companies I have met a tradeshows), I really want to see education and selling treated separately. Yes, buyer education is part of the sales process but I personally walk away from any presentation where the two get confused.

If you learn something from someone, you may wish to buy from them. But there is a difference between going to a talk to learn and meeting them with the intent to buy.

I am sure that there are lots of success stories of business people laying out the cash to speak at tradeshows and seeing success. But I have yet to read one on the website of any show. I am sure that there are cases of the pay-to-speak system opening paths for speakers who wouldn’t normally have even gotten near the stage at a big show. But again, I have yet to read one. And I wonder how many excellent speakers it is actively putting off.

Instead, I have read several speakers write rather bluntly and disparagingly about the practice. I have come across stories of people deciding not to attend a show at all when they found out that paying for a stand was a route to getting a speaking slot. I know of one show which saw less footfall last year and can’t help wonder if their “buy a stand to speak” policy had something to do with it.

As a trained researcher, I have to go with the data and at the moment, I haven’t seen any data that shows me that “buy a stand to speak” is in the interests of speakers, their audience or the bottom-line. I would love to see such data. But for now, if I am invited to speak, I will reflexively check if I have to buy a stand. And if I have to buy a stand, I will simply walk away, knowing that there are other, less financially onerous ways to get excellent content to potential clients, especially with excellent organisations, such as Hashtag Events, showing that the practice is anything but universal.

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.

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.