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Category Archives: Interpreting

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.

Thou Shalt Not Gloat: What the Tencent Fiasco Means for Interpreters

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 1, 2018

Another day, another company trying to replace human interpreters and failing miserably. As I discussed last week, the Tencent interpreting fiasco means that, for now at least, the jobs of human interpreters are safe … but is that it?

It’s a familiar story. A company tries to develop a machine interpreting system with pretty much zero knowledge of what interpreters actually do, apart from the fact that it has something to do with words. The company tells everyone what wonderful technology they have and launches it in a blaze of glory. And then, on its first true public test, it flops.

The story has been seen repeatedly from at least 2012 and recently, Chinese tech giant, Tencent, followed suit. Another demo, another set of giggling journalists. Will tech companies never learn?

While professional interpreters might be tempted to gloat or laugh, neither response is helpful. The fact is that tech companies will never give up on machine interpreting, the prize is just too great. And for professional interpreters, the implications of that have never been clearer. Read on to examine them.

Continue reading

Simultaneous Translation – the need to know guide

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 5, 2018

Don’t have time to read long guide before you jump into buying simultaneous translation? Then this is the post for you. Scroll down for five things you need to know about simultaneous translation before you buy it. To make life even easier, scroll right down to the bottom for a link for a free email course, which takes you through all the buying stages and includes free templates and guides to work through.

Ready?

  1. Professionals call simultaneous translation “simultaneous interpreting” or even just use the term “conference interpreting”. Those who offer “simultaneous translation” without any hedging or further explanation tend not to know what they are doing. And when interpreting goes wrong, it goes really wrong.
  2. Simultaneous interpreting is expensive but its results are incredible. Want to be able to persuade several audiences at once and see orders roll in from around the globe? You will need interpreters. Want to make sure that your talk sounds as smooth in French and German as it does in English? Get yourself some simultaneous interpreters.
  3. You can have simultaneous interpreting without interpreting equipment but you probably shouldn’t. Yes, it’s always a bit of a shock to read the quote for the equipment for interpreting. But, unless you want everyone at your event to complain about the pesky whispering people at the back, you will want to hire in the requisite soundproof booths, microphones and headsets.
  4. You don’t have to get interpreters through agencies. One of the biggest changes in the past few years has been the massive shift in interpreter thinking. Excellent professional interpreters are now happy and proud to offer their services directly to you and some will even find the rest of your interpreting team and pull together the AV equipment for you too!
  5. If your business is English-only, you are losing out on deals. This isn’t strictly about interpreting but it certainly justifies it. According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages here in the UK, UK businesses lose out on £50billion worth of contracts every year due to a lack of language skills. That’s a lot of money to lose, just for the lack of a good interpreting budget.

Want to know how you can hire interpreters the right way every time so you get the most from your budget? Sign up for the Buying Interpreting Step-by-Step course.

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 ProZ.com 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?