Integrity Languages


Category Archives: Interpreting

The Problem with Remote Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 20, 2018

[note from the writer]It’s quite rare these days for me to write a post that is not explicitly aimed at potential clients. This one is an exception, although there are lots of things for clients to chew over. All opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.

By the time you read this, the interpreting industry will have had some time to digest the latest move from the leading remote interpreting platforms. We have had product releases and demos, we have had assurances and articles telling us that we had all better sign up now! Now! No, right now! Why haven’t you signed up to be assimilated yet!? Resistance is futile!

And now, in the latest development, which means not much to anyone who isn’t an interpreter, we have the creation of the Interpreting Technologies Alliance (ITA). According to its own website and this press release via Common Sense Advisory, ITA represents a decision by the major Interpreting Delivery Platform providers (that remote interpreting companies to you and me) to work together on “to raise the visibility and credibility of emerging solutions such as remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) and amplify the presence of interpreting technology in the business community.” That would be marketing and PR then.

There is also a kind of entente agreed between the companies. Here’s another quote from the CSA PR piece:

The six companies agreed to set aside some of the micro differences between their products and interests and instead focus on the common good of pooling resources to develop new market segments. Their main activities will be to jointly engage the private sector and showcase interpreting use cases at industry events and through trade and social media. They also plan a series of joint campaigns to standardize terminology, increase professionalism, educate the market, and raise the capacity of language professionals to meet the needs of the private sector.

On the one hand, it is good to see companies setting aside any rivalries for the greater good but the whole thing opens a few important questions.

First off, why are only technology providers at the table? If the idea is to professionalise the way remote interpreting is delivered (good idea!) and to showcase its uses (again, good idea!) wouldn’t it be good to, you know have some interpreters involved who aren’t on the payroll of any of the big platforms? Or even to invite professionals associations to engage?

The second big question is what exactly is meant by “raise the capacity of language professionals to meet the needs of the private sector”. Since, to quote CSA again remote interpreting has “suffered from a mismatch between product solutions and actual market demand” how do we know that they know any better than currently active interpreters about “meeting the needs of the private sector?” And hold on, aren’t interpreters already doing that and educating each other about that?

The point is that the founding of ITA and its press release so far have simply underlined the longest-standing problem with remote interpreting – it has always been good about generating publicity but its engagement with the supply side, the interpreters, has been patchy. Some companies have done well enough, others have completely missed the boat.

Despite years of development, no-one can say for sure whether remote interpreting is good or bad for quality, good or bad for interpreter physical health, good or bad for interpreter mental health and good or bad for interpreting revenues. That is the main and maybe even the sole message of AIIC’s new position on remote interpreting. We already have burnout issues. Psychologists know that social isolation is a contributing factor to poor mental health outcomes. Might remote interpreting make things even worse? The answer is: we don’t know.

Research on interpreting since the 1990s has shown that in-person interpreted situations across all forms of interpreting are dynamic social environments where interpreters react in real-time to what is said and done. Might remote interpreting break that link and reduce real quality and outcomes? We don’t know.

With unanswered questions like those on the one side and the attempts at shiny PR image-making from remote interpreting tech providers on the other, it is no surprise that many interpreters are sceptical about remote, or at least sceptical about the future of remote interpreting promoted by its most ardent fans.

That’s why, if you get the more astute remote interpreting promoters in a corner and ask them quietly what their biggest challenge is right now, they will tell you that it is still very hard to get experienced, excellent interpreters to sign up. Yes, you get some cheery early adopters. Yes, you can do nice demos. But still, the biggest tension in remote interpreting is on the supply side, not the demand side.

The biggest problem with remote interpreting is interpreters. The tech can be as wonderful as you like. You can even do as much PR and marketing as you like but if you can’t get enough expert interpreters onside, it won’t work. And right now, many experienced expert interpreters are sitting on the fence about remote interpreting, if not swearing off it altogether, at least for settings where we currently work in person. Sadly, the creation of ITA and some of the rather unfortunate language around it has not made things any better.

For remote interpreting clients, the biggest danger will be that the supplier can’t find the high quality interpreter that they need. For remote interpreting platform providers, there will always be a tension between wanting to become a platform that supplies everything, including the interpreters (and thereby appearing like just another agency to interpreters and alienating those who want to get their own clients) and being the platform interpreters choose to use themselves (and thereby making it harder to sell to clients directly).

If the focus of ITA is really driving up standards in remote interpreting and ensuring that the interpreting provided is of high quality, the priority has to be knowledge and real partnership, above fancy stands at tradeshows. Invite interpreting associations to send a “lay member” or three to your board. Fund research that generates real, empirically validated data on the things that matter about remote interpreting. Work with mental health experts on preparing interpreters for the shift you see coming.

Please, for goodness sake, do something more than PR and marketing. The profession deserves much, much more than that!


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.

5 Big Questions to Ask Your Interpreting Agency

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. What criteria do you use to select interpreters?

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

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

  1. Are you a member of a trade association?

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Can we arrange a quick Skype chat?

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

The Million Pound Reason You Should Still Choose Human Interpreters

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 3, 2018

Imagine the scene:


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


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


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


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


“The interpreter believes there has been a misunderstanding.”


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


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


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


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


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

The Two Questions Everyone Forgets to Ask About Interpreting Assignments

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Makes an Event International?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 26, 2017

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


But what actually is an international event?


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


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


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


What makes international events distinctive?


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


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


International Events Celebrate Cultural Diversity


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


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


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


International Events Promote Linguistic Diversity


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


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


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


It’s obvious isn’t it.


The Takeaway


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

Interpreters Climb Inside Your Head for a Living

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 30, 2017

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


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


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


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


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

Another Look Behind the Scenes of Conference Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 29, 2017

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


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


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


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


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

Interpreting is Expensive … But the Alternatives Cost More

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 8, 2017

It’s always a surprise when event managers receive the response to their Request for a Quote for interpreting at an event. Even the simplest simultaneous interpreting setup seems to cost thousands of pounds. Is it really worth it?


There is no getting away from the fact that interpreting is expensive. And while the traditional justification has been to write long posts on how hard interpreting is (and it is hard) or to talk about the training interpreters have to take to be able to deliver at a high level (lots), that doesn’t mean a lot to you. No matter how good interpreting is, if it has no value for your company, it won’t be worth it.


One common response to the cost of interpreting is simply to decide to do everything in English. In some cases, that might seem like a very good short-term decision, especially as English is a global language. But what works in the short-term is often ruinous in the longer-term. Statistics from the House of Lords showed that companies in the UK lose out on £50 billion worth of contracts each year due to a lack of language skills.


English-only meetings and events might be cheap to set up but by displaying a lack of cultural awareness and language abilities, you will be putting customers off rather than winning them over. Conversely, when potential customers see that you care enough to have professional communications in their first language, they are more likely to see you as trustworthy and be more comfortable parting with their cash.


Choosing to do business in only one language leads to inevitable communication struggles. Every conference interpreter can tell stories of speakers who really should have used the interpreters that were available. For me, one of the most striking stories happened at a specialist construction event. Two Italian businesses had the opportunity to showcase their work. The first team presented in broken English, even though there were Italian to English interpreters available. The team from the second company noticed the train wreck that ensued and decided to speak in their best, most powerful Italian, which was then interpreted into English and then into French, Dutch and Spanish.


The difference was most noticeable after the break, just by looking at the number of visitors to the booths rented by each of the two companies. The first team, who used broken English, found themselves alone and bored while their competitors, who realised the power of interpreting, found themselves swamped with interest.


If there is a single best advertisement for the ROI of interpreting, it came last year, when I was interpreting for a British technical manufacturer, hoping to woo a French buyer into placing a large order. The entire meeting and the entire contract turned on a misunderstanding of a single word. The only person who realised what was going on and was able explain the problem to speakers of both languages? The interpreter.


One interpreter, one troublesome word, one large contract gained by the end of the two days. That was definitely money well spent. Interpreters, if recruited correctly, briefed properly and provided with the right setup will always be worth far more than you will pay them. Their work is the difference between an international meeting that changes the future of your company for the better and one that turns into a frustrating waste of time. Choose wisely.


And if you would like someone to help you choose interpreting that will deliver great value for money at your events, drop me an email.

Over-hyped, Under-thought and nowhere near ready: Machine Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 12, 2017

A few months ago, I was flying to an important meeting and I was flicking through the in-flight magazine (for pitching purposes, you see). As I did that I spotted a short paragraph touting the latest technological development: an in-ear device that promised to translate flawlessly from one language to another. It looks like from now own event managers can dispense with us interpreters for good and just load up on a supply of tiny devices to make sure everyone has a great event, no matter which language they speak.


Obviously that isn’t going to happen.


Despite the wonderful headlines in the press and the incredible claims made by marketing departments, the chances of machine interpreting ear-pieces doing anything more than replacing phrasebooks is miniscule.




Firstly, there is nothing fundamentally new in the technology used in such devices. Machine translation of some sort or another has been around since the 1940s and is still producing results that range from the plausible to the ridiculous. Remember when google translate turned Russia into Mordor? Remember all those websites displaying mangled English because of poor use of machine translation?


Without going into the fine detail of where machine translation actually stands right now (you can read that in this article), basically, unless you are willing to spend months training it and are okay restricting your language to controlled phrases, the results of machine translation will be a bit dodgy.


When it comes to magical translation ear-pieces, machine translation is twinned with voice recognition – the technology that is still giving us frustrating helplines, semi-useful virtual assistants and the fury of everyone who doesn’t have a “standard accent”. Sure, voice recognition technology is advancing all the time but it still works best when you use a noise-cancelling microphone and speak super-clearly – not quite the thing for crowded cafés or busy conferences.


The second reason why translation headsets are not a cure-all is that interpreting is about far more than just matching a word or phrase in one language with a word or phrase in another. Language is a strange beast and in all communication, people use idioms, metaphors, similes, sarcasm, irony, understatement, and implications and are tuned to social cues, intentions, body language, atmosphere and intonation. At the moment, and for as much of the future as we can predict, computers will struggle to handle even one of those things.


Human interpreters have to be expert people readers as well as having enviable language knowledge. Ask the CEO for whom an interpreter helped sort out a cultural and terminological misunderstanding that threatened to lose the company a deal with several million pounds. Ask the doctor who worked with an interpreter to be culturally-aware enough to give a patient the right treatment. Ask the speaker whose interpreter prevented him from making a big, but accidental cultural mistake.


When human interpreters work, they don’t simply function as walking dictionaries. They take what is said in one language, try to understand its meaning, tone, and purpose and then recreate it in another language in a way that will work in that specific context.


The only way that machines could ever do that would be if meetings and events were just about stuffing information into people’s heads and human beings always said exactly what they meant in a completely neutral way. With the current emphasis on the importance of delegate experience and our newfound awareness that people are more than just robots, it makes sense that we would realise that their communication deserves to be handled by experts, not machines.


So the next time someone tries to persuade you that you should let machines take over the interpreting at your event, just remember: for information processing, use a computer; for experience and expertise, work with humans.