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Category Archives: Interpreting

The Pleasure of Looking Outwards

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 29, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

#ScotExport and the missing language sector

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 13, 2018

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

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

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

There are two reasons why that is a problem:

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

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

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

 

 

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

Why Speech Translation Apps Fail

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 25, 2018

The Events Management world loves technology. From holograms to RFID badges and from giant robots to automated registration, everyone is on the lookout for some new piece of kit that will drastically improve delegate experience.

In this world, it’s no wonder that machine interpreting/speech translation apps and devices are generating excitement. From the one-way only ili to the shiny in-ear devices from Waverly Labs, millions of dollars have been thrown the way of companies willing to push the boundaries of language technology. Given their slick publicity, even some event managers have got caught up.

Yet there is one small problem with every single one of these devices. They might generate great results in lab tests but, once you take them out into the real-world, the problems quickly emerge. From Tencent’s public fiasco to Wired UK discovering the disappointing truth about the performance of Google’s speech translation pixel buds, it seems that the hype around these devices bears no resemblance to their actual performance.

Why?

Machines Don’t Actually Interpret

What the tech companies don’t tell you is that none of them actually understand what interpreters do. Their devices do three very clever things: they turn speech into text in one language (voice recognition & transcription), then turn that text into text into another language (machine translation), then turn that text into speech again (voice synthesis).

It’s all very smart but saying that interpreters do voice recognition, translation and synthesis is like saying that pianists hit piano keys, press pedals with their feet and follow a rhythm. It’s true but it misses out huge chunks of the process.

Despite all the great shifts in machine learning, the biggest weakness in all speech translation and machine interpreting is that it is not interpreting. It’s not that the technology is bad; it’s that it’s not actually doing the task it is sold to do.

So what do human interpreters do?

Explaining what human interpreters do would take an entire book but there are a few things that buyers need to know about human interpreters. Here are three fundamental ones.

  • Interpreters deal with intonation

Take the English sentence “I only told her I loved her.” That sentence can have seven different meanings according to which word is stressed. In many languages, that would lead to seven different ways of  interpreting that same sentence. Multiply that across an entire speech and you can see that missing the intonation in one sentence can throw off the entire meaning of the talk.

For the moment at least, machine interpreting/speech translation can only deal with the words that are said. Zero intonation and stress data are passed from the voice recognition engine to the machine translation engine. Any meaning that is not found in the words on the page is lost.

  • Interpreters deal with status and number

This might be hard for monolingual English speakers to understand but there is no one way of translating or interpreting “Please sit down” into French or German or any other language that has more than one word for “you”. A human interpreter would know immediately whether you are addressing one or many people and whether there was a difference in social status or need for politeness that would determine which word for “you” they should use. Machines simply don’t know and can’t know.

That might seem like a minor issue but, in the context of say, trying to sell products or negotiating a million-pound deal, the minor annoyance and rudeness of getting that wrong can make a difference. Would you want to take the risk?

  • Interpreters deal with context

This sums up every other point but deserves its own emphasis. Research into real-world interpreting keeps on showing just how many decisions interpreters take because of the context in which they work. They explain culture-specific terms, unknot misunderstandings, shift the language they use according to the needs of the audience, and make smart decisions as to how to deliver the message to the audience. And those are just the differences we know about!

Any machine interpreting system that misses out on intonation, social status and context is doomed to failure because those aspects are just as important as the individual words said by the speaker.

 

These new devices absolutely represent a step forward in technology and might just replace venerable old phrase books in every traveller’s back pocket but for your next event, you should definitely choose humans.

 

If your next event involves more than one language, it makes sense to get help from an expert to get exactly the right interpreting. If you need a consultant to make sure you get great interpreting  when it matters most to you, send me a message so we can chat through the results you want and how best to get them.

 

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?

Less Greek Poetry, More Lifesaving, Please

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 27, 2018

You might have missed it but the world has another translation of the Odyssey into English. This one is different as it was translated by a woman, Emily Wilson, a professor of the classics at the University of Pennsylvania. You may have missed it as the excitement surrounding it has only reached fever-pitch in the lofty worlds of literary translation, literary criticism, feminist studies and in some corners of translation. If you are a business owner reading this, I doubt you could even be persuaded to care.

Yes, it is an achievement. Yes, it tells us many interesting things about the inherent bias of all translation (even machine translation is biased). Yes, it is a cultural milestone. But it leaves me with not much more than a nonplussed shrug. In fact, the waves of excitement about it that have hit the translation world have actually slightly worried me.

Just as interpreters only ever seem to make the news when they are working for politicians or apparently at risk from machines, it seems that we are rarely ever good at getting people talking about translation when it concerns a book, especially an old one written by a long-dead author.

As someone who spends time in the metal-clanging, mud-flecked world of commercial interpreting, with colleagues whose work in the medical world is more about saving the lives of people who are still breathing, I find it sad that we still find it easier to laud a new translation of the Odyssey than the shout about the fact that people didn’t die this week or businesses grew this week or websites could reach new audiences this week because of the work of lesser-known interpreters and translators.

Of course, non-disclosure agreements don’t apply to the Classics but is a new side of Homer really the biggest achievement translators and interpreters can shout about?

If the saga over Donald Trump’s Russian interpreter taught the world what we mean by professional secrecy and the translations of the UK Government Brexit White Paper allowed us to explain what we mean by quality assurance, what else might the achievements of everyday commercial translators and interpreters show the world?

An average conference interpreter might be worth millions to their clients. Medical translators and interpreters literally save lives every single day. Court interpreters allow everyone to receive justice, whatever their language, while saving significant sums in mistrials. Business interpreters give their clients the best possible chance of winning deals.

So if we are going to celebrate a new translation of the Odyssey, let’s spend even more time celebrating the less glamourous but vital achievements of those outside of the literary sphere. If we are going to be inspired by the Classics, let’s seek even greater inspiration from the Herculean effort of the 90+% of translators who will never translate a single book.

And here’s the biggest challenge. If we are going to decide that we want to hear encouraging, inspiring stories of breaking down barriers, going against the flow and building something genuinely new at our conferences, could we not find that just as easily from our most humble colleagues as we do from leading literary lights? We love speakers whose interests lie in either literature or tech but what about livestreaming some of our simplest colleagues as they tell (anonymised) stories of life on the front line, mediating between life and death, profit and loss, war and peace, injury and safety.

This isn’t just an appeal for translators and interpreters to shine a light on the everyday miracles of even our most humble colleagues. It’s a wakeup call to every business owner who finds this post. We are proud of our diplomatic and literary colleagues but we are equally proud of the colleagues whose work is more directly relevant to your concerns. We are more than headlines and articles in literary magazines.

We are those who increase your profits, open new markets, provide safety documents, allow multilingual inspections, let you receive medical care abroad, and create websites that lead people outside of your home country to buy your products. We are professional interpreters and translators and we make international business (and politics and law) work.

Replacing interpreters with interpreters who know technology

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 13, 2018

Interpreters will not be replaced by technology; they will be replaced by interpreters who use technology – Bill Wood, company founder, DS Interpretation

That quote has become the interpreting equivalent of translators answering “it depends on context” to even the simplest question and agencies asking for “your best rate”. But what does it mean and is it accurate? Even more to the point, why should you care if you are buying interpreting?

The “undeniable facts” of interpreting technology

The impulse behind the quote that started this post seems to be these five “undeniable facts”:

  • After a slow start, new technologies are now filtering into interpreting and shaping work,
  • And they will continue to do so,
  • Those who learn how to use the technologies to their benefit and to the benefit of their clients gain a first mover advantage in the marketplace,
  • Those who lag behind are in danger of having out-dated business models that will not survive after everyone clambers to get on the high-tech bandwagon,
  • Therefore, it is a good business strategy to learn technologies now!

Now, apart from the fact that those facts have been true to some degree at any point in the development of the modern interpreting profession (which is only about 60-70 years old anyway, if we concentrate on conference interpreting), there is plenty of room to debate how far those five assumptions are both accurate and meaningful.

And of course, this still sidesteps the question of  their application to other forms of interpreting. What affects the conference hall might not touch the courts; the difference maker in the doctor’s office might have no effect on the negotiating room.

So, are new technologies changing interpreting? From the point of view of interpreters, yes they are (depending on where and how you work). From the point of view of clients, it remains to be seen. Can clients tell the difference between remote interpreting and in-person interpreting? That remains to be tested. 

Will technologies continue to filter into interpreting? Well, yes but that is practically a truism in any profession. Try to find an accountant who still keeps paper cashbooks or a lawyer who never looks up case law online.

Now what about the first mover advantage and the slow mover disadvantage? As a researcher, I have to say that I have seen absolutely zero objective evidence that interpreters who are adopting any form of technology are seeing any economic advantage (one for a PhD student to study, methinks). And we all know our share of old-school interpreters, who think that being high-tech means accepting contracts by email, yet they still make a packet.

Why People Forecast the Triumph of Interpreting Technology

The famed competitive advantage of adopting technology is a forecast, rather than a reality. We think it will be that way because that forecast serves the purpose of … selling technology. I really don’t think clients care a hoot whether we have a paperless booth or turn up with an armful of vellum scrolls. Results, not techniques, are the order of the day.

There is, of course, the rather more sound economic argument that technologies can increase service availability and so allow more streams of income. That kind of works … until we read research that tells us about video remote sign language interpreters ending up with worse pay and conditions than their in-person colleagues. If there is an economic advantage to that technology, it isn’t being felt by the interpreters. And I doubt it is being seen by the buyers either.

A More Realistic View

Adopting technology for the sake of adopting technology is a really cruddy business strategy. Being smart and adopting technologies that allow you to offer better service levels and products that are better suited to your market is much better.

So maybe the quote should actually be “interpreters will not be replaced by technology but by interpreters who make smart business decisions as to the technologies they adopt.”. Admittedly, that isn’t as good a soundbite. But it is more intellectually honest.

What about buyers?

My advice to buyers is simple. Take a good look at what you are being offered. If you receive a quote with a load of techno-babble you don’t understand, walk away. If, instead, you get chatting with someone who actually cares to find out what you are trying to achieve and sends a quote explicitly showing you how it can be done, you have found the right person.

It’s not about high-tech or low-tech; it’s about getting the right tech to deliver what the buyer wants. And if that means vellum scrolls this week and shiny apps the next, so be it. The interpreting world is too complex for short quips to sum it up.

 

What the EP Interpreters Strike Teaches Interpreting Buyers

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 6, 2018

While I was training to be a conference interpreter, international organisations and especially the European Union, were held up as the highest level at which you could work. Their quality, conditions and working routines were thought to be the paragon of professionalism. Senior management of the European Parliament have dented that view.

Faced with a perceived need to save money on their interpreting budget, reports from interpreters and their respresentatives have claimed that a new contract will be unilaterally forced on interpreters, a contract which includes working conditions that threaten their emotional and physiological well-being. Many of the staff interpreters working at the Parliament are being deprived of the right to strike, a fundamental human right for almost every profession. It is not a pretty picture.

But why does this matter do other interpreting buyers?

Apart from the obvious, and admittedly philosophical, cries that the crisis threatens multilingual democracy, this unnecessary conflict shines a light on a commonly perceived conflict between interpreting buyers and interpreters. Buyers want the best deal possible. Interpreters want the best conditions possible. The two are not always compatible … or so it might seem.

There are three paths towards a resolution.

In the commercial world, one possible path is for buyers to throw their hands in the air and declare that they can do the entire thing in just in English (or some other language). Yes, that solution is cheaper but its drawbacks are well-known. In short, every pound “saved” by not hiring an interpreter leads to several more pounds wasted in lost reputation, lower sales volumes, misunderstandings and more often than not, in the higher prices paid to hire someone to sort out the resulting mess.

A second path is to simply steamroller your way through. More than one buyer has taken the decision to go for cheaper equipment, or to utter those fateful words “I am sure we can find someone to do it cheaper.” I would humbly suggest that most of the people I have met who have been dismayed by the quality on offer from “professional interpreters” feel that way because of they have seen first-hand what happens when corners are cut.

From AV companies omitting filters and pre-amps in an attempt to reduce hire costs to “Bob from Accounting” being asked to interpret instead of those overpaid professionals, seemingly small decisions can have a big impact on the outcome.

And when it comes to cutting costs, looking for ways to bypass normal working conditions are all too common. It might seem that conference interpreters have it easy: with fixed working days, expensive equipment, the opportunity to work in teams and requests to receive all the paperwork before the meeting, but there are reasons for those requests. Performing simultaneous interpreting for longer than 20-30 minutes is actually bad for your brain. And anyone who has done a 10 hour interpreting day will tell you how you feel the next morning!

The Way to Get Better Value Interpreting

If going without interpreting costs more in the long-term and cutting corners leads to unacceptable levels of quality, what does work?

The best way to get value for money from your interpreting is to … ask the interpreters.

Not exactly rocket science, I know. But it is very often overlooked. Here’s a simple example.

A non-profit organisation recently approached me for a quote for an upcoming meeting. After receiving the brief and talking to the AV and interpreting teams, we managed to come up with some solutions which shaved around £500 off the bill. Of course, there were trade-offs made. The number of delegates would be limited and they would only be able to receive the interpreting while sat in their seats. But still,  a £500 saving is better than nothing.

On other occasions, a good consultant might suggest that the conference setup means that you don’t  need simultaneous interpreting and can go for consecutive instead. It nearly doubles the length of each speech but can be significantly cheaper than simultaneous, as it needs much less equipment.

Whatever the event, experienced consultant interpreters will know the possible trade-offs and will be willing to give advice on where you can save and where you absolutely shouldn’t compromise. And this counts for every setting in which interpreting is used, not just conferences. It’s in the interests of the interpreters to make sure that you and your delegates have an excellent event, after all. And they will know from experience which decisions always lead to grumpy users and disappointed buyers.

Teamwork always wins

The best route to get value for money from interpreting will always be to partner with interpreters to find workable solutions. Teamwork, rather than throwing weight around or forcing the issue, always gets the best results. Now, if only someone could explain that to the management of the European Parliament.

 

If you have an event coming up and you are looking to get the best from your interpreters, it would be my pleasure to give you all the help and advice you need. From speeding up the briefing process to building a bespoke team, I am here to help. Drop me an email to start the conversation.

 

Everything you need to know about untranslatable words

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 19, 2018

They don’t exist.

That’s it.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When You Only See Giants

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

The story repeats in so many industries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skills to Learn before you Learn to Code

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 7, 2018

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

Why Tech Fails

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

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

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

The Problem with Machine Translation

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

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

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

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

Skills to Learn before you Learn to Code

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

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

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

It’s a world we can only build together.