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Interpreting and Accent-shaming

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 9, 2018

I would not normally tell this story. This blog is usually aimed at clients and so I rarely write about issues like this. But since this one directly affects clients, I think it needs to be discussed.

The Day I was Accent-Shamed

It’s more than ten years since I was a trainee interpreter, working towards my masters at Heriot-Watt University. The course was great, the support was fantastic and I met people there with whom I still work. But one day was not OK.

From the second semester, we had a weekly mock conference. This, for me, was the most valuable part of the entire course. A few times, the university would being in practising interpreters too.

One of these “professionals” nearly ended my career before it started. He was sent as pedagogical assistance from one of the European international organisations. He was smartly dressed, with impeccable English and he knew he was good.

During the mock conference he heard, I had a really bad day. I hadn’t prepared properly, the speeches seemed harder than usual and it just all went wrong. When I saw the guy at the end of the lesson, he shot me a haughty look and said.

“I don’t think you’re cut out for interpreting. Your performance wasn’t good enough. Oh and that accent has to go.”

Three sentences, three blows to my confidence, three reasons to give up then and there. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the amazing Lila Guha coming and encouraging us a few weeks later, I would have quit. I am glad I didn’t. But it was heart-breakingly close.

The Truth About Accents

I know I am not the only interpreter who has been told that they needed a more “neutral accent” to survive. It probably comes from the right place. Everyone wants conference interpreters to sound professional and be easy to understand. It’s probably what clients want too, right?.

Contrary to the advice I often received, my accent has proven to be a boon. Not many people who grow up a short bus ride from Glasgow ever make to interpreting school. For jobs on fisheries policy, for example, where pretty much all the delegates arrive with strong accent of their own, having a booth full of people who aren’t scared of Aberdonian English or Northern French helps to settle the organiser’s nerves.

For clients, the interpreters’ accents rarely seem to be an issue. Perhaps it’s because their world is full of accents already.

Being Easy to Understand does not Require a “Neutral Accent”

Go into any tradeshow and you will hear a plethora of accents. Attend any international confernece and Geordie will rub shoulders with Mexican Spanish, while North African French mingles with Chinese-flavoured German. The events at which we work are incredibly diverse. Shouldn’t the interpreters be too?

The whole “neutral accent” issue seems to boils down to two problems.

The first is whether your accent is so strong that it impedes understanding. For interpreters, that is actually an issue. Clients do need to be able to follow us, after all.

When clients are incomprehensible, it is usually more to do with using an unfamiliar lingua franca or reading from a typed manuscript. We never tire of advising speakers to speak from notes and use their native language.

It is doubtful that incomprehensible interpreters would ever make it through training. Gaps in language skills, pronunciation errors and articulation problems will be caught be careful tutors. Being able to express yourself clearly, no matter your home region, is a basic skill.

Yet being comprehensible and losing your native regional accent are two entirely different things. By all means, let’s encourage Glaswegians to slow down a bit and replace their glottal stops for the consonants that were originally there. But let’s not tell them that they have to sound like Eton graduates if they want to get work.

The Need to Reflect Diversity

The second problem with our push for “neutral accents” is that it hides the diversity of modern international events.

If the conference hall is home to a range  accents, surely the interpreting booth should be too. What does it say to clients if make it a mark of professionalism to turn a diverse speaking lineup into a parade of soundalikes? If the conference is for slang-using lumberjacks, isn’t it a bit weird for the interpreters’ voices to make them sound like yuppies?

So where do we go?

If event managers are facing the need to think more carefully about the messages they send when they choose speakers and panel members, then interpreters need to think more carefully about the messages we send to our clients and to new interpreters.

We can, and indeed should, continue to hang on to the requirement that interpreters are easy to understand for everyone listening. But, in a world increasingly aware of the benefits of diversity and the problems of privilege, we really do need to drop the “neutral accent” thing.

No modern linguist would see “neutral accents” as anything more than linguistic discrimination. Received Pronunciation and Midland American English are two specific accents among many. When we ask interpreters to strip off their accents, we are asking them to distance themselves from an important part of their identity, while attempting to create an interpreting profession full of soundalike clones.

If even the big national broadcasters can see the benefit of letting people hear a variety of voices, shouldn’t we?

Sure, some clients will prefer some accents, just as some interpreters prefer certain kinds of speakers. But the market is big enough and varied enough for the world of interpreting to reflect the diverse, multi-accented world in which we work.

Over to you:

If you are an events manager or interpreting buyer, do you have a preference for certain accents?

If you are an interpreter, have you ever been told to drop your accent? Did you?
Would you ever advise an interpreter to drop their accent?

10 Lessons from Paternity Leave

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 5, 2018

Integrity Languages has been a bit quieter than usual, as we celebrated the birth of our fourth child in September. While I send off some important projects, here are a few lessons from my paternity leave.

  1. You can only truly discover what is in a nappy when you unfasten it; you can only truly know what a project will be like when you do it.
  2. It is absolutely possible to answer emails while burping a baby but do wear a muslin cloth.
  3. Learning is always quicker when you are having fun.
  4. If an “expert” knows the answer to every question, they have never met children under 7.
  5. Everything is fun to someone. Join them and you will have fun too.
  6. There is no hobby, no matter how esoteric, that someone cannot make money from using YouTube and a bit of imagination.
  7. The best days are those when you end up so tired you are asleep by the time your head hits the pillow.
  8. If you put crazy ideas on twitter, lots of people will actually want them to become reality.
  9. Trust German podcast co-hosts to be organisational geniuses
  10. Being a consultant interpreter means you have to be able to act as a consultant interpreters as well as buyers.

If you would like to see one of those lessons turned into a full blog post, drop me a comment.

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.

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.

 

 

 

What Does a Consultant Interpreter Actually Do?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 14, 2018

For most businesses who don’t have an HQ in Brussels, Paris or some other city where conference interpreting is ubiquitous, the phrase “consultant interpreter” will seem entirely foreign. So what is one and what can they do for you?

To answer that question, we need to think about how interpreters are traditionally hired. For many companies, hiring an interpreter means sending an email to an interpreting agency with a brief for the event, sending over documents and then waiting for the interpreters to turn up on the day.

There is not a lot obviously wrong with that model and, as I mention in my free Buying Interpreting Step-by-Step course, there are times when going to an interpreting agency is exactly what you need to do.

Yet, there comes a time in many businesses where running international events becomes a regular feature of your work. There might also be occasions where the event is so special or so valuable that you want greater partnership than the traditional agency model can easily provide.

This is where consultant interpreters come in. As both a practising interpreter in their own right and someone who knows how to build specialist interpreting teams, they know how to match your exact needs with interpreters on the market. They will know who is excellent for sales events and who is better in board meetings. Why? Because they will tend to have worked alongside the people they recommend and will have first-hand experience of their strengths and weaknesses.

As well as building you a custom interpreting team, a good consultant interpreter will also have relationships with suppliers of interpreting equipment. That relationship alone could save you hours of frustration!

Lastly, here’s something that few people know. Consultant interpreters really are consultants too. If you have a question about the best order to speeches to keep people awake or the right interpreting equipment or even the best way to address guests from different countries, ask your consultant interpreter. They will have the knowledge and experience to either answer those questions themselves or find you the right person to answer them.

 

Now that you have seen what a consultant interpreter can do, isn’t it time you chatted with one? Drop me an email using the contact form for a free Skype chat to see how working with a consultant interpreter could super-charge your business.

Donald Trump, Uber and the Rediscovery of Responsibility

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Is Your NDA Working Against Your Business?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 29, 2017

Non-Disclosure Agreements: for many businesses, they are a fact of life. If you have IP to protect or confidential information to keep safe, it is likely that you have a template NDA stashed in a folder somewhere that you ask anyone working for you or with you to sign. But is your current NDA helping or hindering your business?

I am no lawyer, so I won’t even attempt to give a legal view but, having had to read and sign my fair share of those documents as an interpreter, I have seen some companies get it right and others mess up. Let’s talk about how to mess up an NDA.

No matter how amazing your business, as long as you aren’t MI5 or the NSA, you probably don’t want your NDA to insist that all translators or interpreters working with you must refer every single terminology issue back to you. If you trust them enough to ask them to work with you in the first place, it makes sense to trust them to do terminology and background research in a way that will not jeopardise the confidentiality of your sensitive information.

A more sensible approach, which is thankfully becoming more widespread, is to draw a line between commercially sensitive information (which should never be disclosed unless there is a legal imperative to do so) and general information. Someone checking with a colleague what the French for “left-handed spark plug” is unlikely to have a negative effect on your business. Someone telling your competitors how many you sold last year just might!

Similarly, event managers do need some leeway to tell their suppliers about the nature and purpose of an event. If your NDA says something like “no information which comes into the provider’s possession due to the assignment may be passed to any third parties”, you have just stopped them actually making the event work!

 It will always be vital to get a legal view on the strictness of your NDA but, at the same time, do ask your providers what levels of disclosure are reasonable and necessary for them to do their jobs. If you don’t do that, you may find them completely unable to deliver the service you are paying them for!

Pre-trade show tips to make your day more interesting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 7, 2017

Next week, I will have the honour of attending The Meetings Show. This will be my third year there and, suffice to say, I am far more prepared than ever before. Here are my top 6 tips for getting the most out of any show as a supplier who isn’t yet in the position to have a stand.

  1. Approach the show as a networking and market intelligence feast

The first time I went to the show, I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. I gained zero guaranteed new clients, had to face my own fears continually and felt overwhelmed.

I made two main mistakes. The first was expecting cash results straightaway. That rarely happens. What does happen is that you meet lots of new people and gain contacts that you just would not have found on your own.

The second mistake was only staying on the show floor and completely skipping the seminar program. If you want to know what is really going on in an industry, pay close attention to what is being taught, by whom and why. That little bit of info will tell you a lot about growing sectors and looming challenges. If you can position yourself as someone who can help clients rise to those challenges, you will be in a very good position.

  1. Do something random

Last year, the hardest moment was a rather annoying discussion on Brexit where the pro-Brexiteers basically talked down their opposition.  That one discussion was what I thought was going to be the best moment. It wasn’t by a long shot. Instead, the best moment happened when I was looking for a scheduled seminar and bumped into the head of an association. That one conversation wiped away the memory of the horrible discussion and helped me to see a new direction for my business.

The same can be said about visiting stands where you don’t have an agenda. Some of my most surprising wins last year came when I went up to stands on a whim, got talking and realised that I could provide some excellent content for some magazines for PAs. Two articles in those magazines later and I landed a spot in Flybe’s Flight Time in-flight magazine. One random idea, lots of real benefits.

Oh and some of the stands had great sweeties too!

  1. Stay for a while

It surprised me how many people seemed to walk in, saunter round and then leave quickly. You really can’t enjoy a show properly until you have explored every nook and cranny and hung around aimlessly for a bit. It’s those moments when you seem lost that can lead to the best outcomes.

  1. Get a show guide

Yes, they can be tricky to spot but the show floor plan and seminar guide will be your best friend. I like to mark all the stands I definitely want to visit, along with routes to the toilets and food areas. Sometimes, I will also mark down anyone I missed whom I want to contact. You would be surprised how useful those little books can be.

  1. Bring a backpack

While the show bags are pretty tough, you will need something special to carry all the magazines, materials and giveaways you get. Having a good, neat backpack also allows you to carry your own water and a bit of extra food, as well as reading material for the journey each way.

  1. Chill out

You would be surprised at how hard I had to work at my first trade show to get over my own nervousness. I took it all way too seriously, as if I was going to ruin my career if I didn’t manage to chat to that one person from Wedgewood DMC (still looking for another chat with them, actually). Nowadays, I have learned to take the show as a welcome day out of my schedule and to be as naturally me as I can be. It’s surprising how much better that works!

The Intellectual Dishonesty of “Only”

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: December 7, 2016

Content Marketing is not the only kind of marketing left. Only £10 per month is still £120 per year. There is not “only” one way to work with interpreters.

Whenever someone wants to minimise a downside or blind you to alternatives, they will use “only”. The truth is, there are always many options and many routes. Nothing is ever as simple as it looks.

There are several ways to organise events and all of them will give different results. There are several ways to hire interpreters – each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Anyone who tries to tell you that their way is the only way that works is not telling the full story.

Instead of looking for the only way or the price that is only the same as a cappuccino, strip off the qualifiers and read again. The truth is often uncomfortable but it should never be ignored.

Think off-centre

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: December 2, 2016

What is the biggest problem your business faces right now? Do you need more new clients? Do you need to improve your market position or reduce costs?

Most business problems have typical solutions. Buy in temporary expertise, pay for advertising, create a campaign.

But sometimes the very fact that everyone is trying the same things reduces your chances of success. If everyone pushing for a slice of the agency market or the wedding pie, making your mark will be a hard slog.

Yet, when we really think hard and process our experiences, new and untested strategies can appear. Where are your competitors not marketing that might still offer a lucrative source of work for you? What communities are you part of where your skills may be in demand? What additional products or services can you offer that are unique to you?

Thinking off-centre means deliberately looking for creative strategies and revealing questions that will open new doors for your business. If you are in the middle of a competitive market and there is pressure to squeeze margins or suppliers, it might just be what your business needs.