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Category Archives: Interpreting

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.

 

Why?

 

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.

Why I Only Offer On-site Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 12, 2017

It is a trend that is both incredibly promising and incredibly controversial. Remote interpreting, where the interpreter can be located absolutely anywhere and yet still interpret for your event via a phone call or online platform, has become big business and is set to grow even more. So why would any consultant interpreter not jump at the opportunities it offers?

 

Don’t get me wrong. I can see the benefits of remote interpreting. With the growth in virtual meetings and the never-ending need for interpreters in dangerous situations, remote interpreting will enable business and save lives. I really do welcome its growth. But it also represents a trend that I have strategically chosen not to follow.

 

In modern, high-tech remote interpreting, interpreting is sold as a service that clients can dial into any time, with no particular commitment. That is great for some clients who might only ever need an interpreter for one conversation or who might want a bit of linguistic assistance here and there. It is not so good for those of us who are pushing for interpreting to be seen as a partnership.

 

In my own research and practice, I have seen how powerful it can be when speakers, interpreters, audience members and event organisers work together closely. While instant, remote interpreting is good, I have seen even better, longer-lasting results from being in the room, reading the situation closely and understanding the needs, wants and motivations of all those involved – the kind of involvement that is impossible when you aren’t physically there.

 

While in the past, having interpreting at a meeting was a marker of prestige, we are now fast arriving at a fundamental division in the profession. On one side, there will be interpreting as a service: slotting in seamlessly where needed and available at a touch of a button without any commitment. On the other side, there will be interpreting as partnership: delivering not just accurate interpreting but interpreting that is keyed to each particular context, audience and goal. In the former, interpreting will be incidental, there because of a transient need. In the latter, interpreting will be there not just because of a need but to provide real, lasting, ongoing value.

 

I have decided that the core purpose of my business is to be the person clients can trust to bring together teams of experts who are as committed to the success of their events as they are. From where I sit, that simply isn’t possible with any kind of interpreting delivery platform, with their automated sorting and emphasis on speedy choice.

 

I sincerely wish the developers of remote interpreting every success but I won’t be joining them.

 

If your business could do with someone to build you an interpreting dream team that you can work with again and again, it’s time we talked. Drop me an email for a free, no obligation chat.

Building Credibility in a New Market

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 6, 2017

Whatever kind of business you run, there will come a time when you need to take your credibility and expertise and apply them to a completely new market. How can you do that and what does it take?

I had been an interpreter for about five years before I realised the power of credibility. I had based my entire marketing strategy on the premise that if I contacted enough potential clients (almost all of them agencies), I would eventually get work. And that kind of worked. Except the flow of work was slow and the process was boring.

At some point, I had the idea that I might be able to apply the work I had been doing on research and on blogging research to my own business. So, I put together a very basic wordpress site and started writing there and then shortly after, I started writing articles for magazines in my industry too.

Slowly and after a few false starts, I started to build a reputation. At the first professional conference I attended abroad, someone said they recognised me from my blog. My CV got shunted to the top of the pile by a very busy agency because one of their project managers had seen me on twitter.

The effort of creating content began to be rewarded with the benefit of being invited to speak at conferences and universities across the UK and Europe and, of course, the publication of my first book. Add to that the opportunity to do work for some new clients and I could show that I was marketing something I could actually deliver.

About eighteen months ago, I realised it was time to start the process all over again. As much as it is still fun to be recognised at conferences in my own industry, that wasn’t sufficient to help me reach the event management clients I am looking for. To do that, I was going to have to build up a reputation in their industry too!

If you are looking at doing something similar for your potential clients, there are a few stages that you will go through.

In the early days, you will have a regular fight with imposter syndrome (who am I to talk to these people?), which won’t be helped by the pile of rejections that you will get.

But that’s okay. Rejections are part of the process. Keep pitching to conferences and magazines. Keep writing content. Keep reading the magazines your clients read. Eventually, something will work. Deliver with excellence and you can go to the next stage.

If you are smart, you will leverage any success you get for all its worth. Did you get an article in a client magazine? Mention it on your website and in every single proposal. Did you get invited to do a talk? Invite potential clients to come. Did you deliver an excellent project? Use that experience to get more.

Whatever level of success you attain, it will only grow if you make the most out of it. What you learn from one experience becomes the food for the next and the audience you meet today can often help you build one tomorrow.

One last point, in all of this, it is important to be able to give some worthwhile knowledge or expertise in the process and it is vital to always deliver even better than you promise. When I chat with event managers, I don’t try to tell them how to run events, but I do try to give away some useful ideas about working more effectively with interpreters or bringing translation and interpreting together at their events. True expertise is not the knowledge that you are great but the ability to help others achieve greatness.

Keep pushing doors and adding value. It’s the best thing you can do for your business.

And, if you are an event manager looking for someone to build teams to deliver high-impact multilingual events, let’s chat.

Make it Work

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 14, 2017

Recently, one of my very first clients came back to me after a break of several years. The work was as tricky and as interesting as ever but now I had a lot more confidence in my own abilities.

 

With one translation – a CV – I asked permission to omit sections that would be legally uncomfortable for both the end client and anyone reading the CV. They were also entirely unnecessary and irrelevant for the job. What did my client say?

 

“Of course, please take out the unnecessary parts to make it work.”

 

Make it work. That’s what our clients really need us to do. Making it work means being more than a walking or typing dictionary. It means knowing more than where to find the French for “spinneret” or the Spanish for “left-handed wedge sprocket”. It means caring about and knowing about the end result. It means understanding the processes that the document or meeting will be part of and making sure that your document of meeting will work for that purpose.

 

This is why accuracy matters – because without the right kind of accuracy, nothing will work.

 

This is why partnership and transparency is a much more useful set of concepts than “neutrality” or even “impartiality”. Interpreters and translators are always intimately linked with the work they produce. Our skills and personality and expertise shine through and we absolutely should care deeply that what we produce works for everyone involved. We are never truly neutral. We are always involved.

 

Make it work. It’s not a theory or a philosophy; it’s the basic standard of all real professional translation and interpreting.

Interpreters don’t need any more platforms

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 14, 2017

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At least twice a year, the world of interpreting is bombarded with another “solution provider” offering a game-changing idea that will revolutionise the industry… only to vanish in a puff of smoke. Why is the industry still dominated by the same few players? Why do the game-changers often turn out to be nothing more than a momentary distraction? 

The most common reason that new platforms make a big splash and then sink into obscurity is simply that, in many cases, the inventors either have little industry knowledge or try to solve a problem for which a good, but not perfect solution exists.

Take telephone interpreting. It would really take something special to knock the likes of Language Line off their perch, simply because the largest uses of that form of interpreting are markets where multi-year, exclusive supplier contracts rule the day. To win there, you need to be a technology provider, agency, quality manager and telecoms company all at once.

Then there is the rash of providers looking to provide human interpreting via an app, usually for ad hoc work. This is basically the telephone interpreting market but with less status and so recruiting interpreters means either paying professional rates to try to attract experts and running razor thin margins or going for “bilinguals” and sacrificing quality and hoping clients won’t notice.

It is pretty obvious then that “Interpreting via app” is not the cash cow that it looks like. Building another platform is a pretty risky way of trying to make money, especially since more and more interpreters are looking to win their own clients anyway.

Of course, there are a lot of new potential markets, such as webinar interpreting and remote interpreting for hospitals. However, in those cases, once again, just being a platform provider is not enough. Clients seem to want solution providers in those market to provide both the tech and the specialist interpreters to use it. And that is something you can only do if you already know the industry well.

So what should you try if you want to make money from the interpreting industry? By far the best course of action would be to tune into what the upper end of the market is doing, since the mid- and bulk-markets are already so competitive. Tech that improves interpreter workflows, such as automated term extraction, easier billing and payment management, slicker terminology apps and travel management will always be popular. There is also a need for specific CRM tools for the industry that link to client-specific term lists and ways of tracking practice. Add to that the need to service the needs of new tech-driven markets and there is enough space for a whole world of new providers.

There is huge potential for developers to create something of real value… just don’t make another over-hyped platform, OK?