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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.

 

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.

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

Eventbrite and the Power of User Revolt

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 23, 2018

While I was away enjoying the delights of Vienna and the BP18 conference (blog post coming soon), a  storm broke out among events professionals on social media. Here was my first glimpse of it.

Screencapture of Facebook update from Alan Stevens

The upshot was simple: Eventbrite claimed the right to come to any event where their software was used and to film and/or record everything that went on for their own promotional use. In short, the content created at the event belonged to them, not the organisers or the speakers.

Needless to say, when this went public, the events management world went crazy. Within a few days, the #eventbrite hashtag on Twitter was full of complaints, demands for information and competitors showing how their services were better. Yesterday, this response came from their head office account. (Name of tweeter redacted)

Screencapture of tweet from Eventbrite

The offending clauses would noticeably disappear from the terms used in the UK and US.

The users won.

Now that we are beginning to ask tough questions about the power and responsibility of technology companies, this one decision stands out. When users make enough noise, companies do change their practices. A few tweets or posts in the right place and behaviour changes.

Not only does this  story remind us of the power of users, it should serve as a warning to all businesses to respond to client problems before their reputation is threatened. Just because your lawyers told you that your Terms of Service are legally good, that doesn’t mean that they are the right ones for you and your users. So how helpful are your terms?

 

 

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!

 

Donald Trump, Uber and the Rediscovery of Responsibility

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Here’s a Brand New Course to Improve Your Public Speaking

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 3, 2017

There is nothing that comes close to the impact of delivering a talk that wows an audience. There is no better way to make people take notice of your business, believe your results or give you a promotion. Yet public speaking is regularly listed among our worst fears. It’s time that ended.

 

For the past month, I have been working on a course covering the four basic building blocks of public speaking:

  • Content that carries the message you want to deliver
  • Communication that brings understanding and encourages change
  • Connection that makes you believable and relatable
  • Creativity that creates moments that people remember when they go home.

 

Those are the four building blocks that I have been teaching around Europe in my popular Public Speaking Workshop for the past two years. This has honed my presentation and allowed me to answer the big questions that people have about speaking. And now, I have gathered the very best content from that workshop and turned it into a four part course with videos, podcasts, FAQ sheets and a mini-guide for those who are new to speaking.

Until 9th August, 2017 the course is on offer at a bargain price of £29.99 for fifty minutes of video teaching, almost an hour of downloadable podcasts and all the other help sheets. Whatever your business, you will find that improving your public speaking gives you a noticeable boost and this course is there to do exactly that.

 

To find out more or to buy the course right now, simple go here: https://integrity-languages-courses.thinkific.com/courses/public-speaking-building-blocks

 

 

 

 

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?

Why Community Counts

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 9, 2016

Millions of people are waking up to election results they did not expect and did not want. Others are waking bleary-eyed in disbelief that the result they wanted but seemed out of reach is here. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, there is change in the air and it will take courage and creativity to navigate it. But it will also take community.

 

Beyond “Community” as a Buzzword

 

For the past few years, social media has turned the word “community” into a buzzword. We have gaming communities, interpreting communities, communities of practice, the events community and more besides. In the face of technology that could lead to us living in individual shacks, communicating with nothing but smartphones and Wi-Fi, there is a desperate cry for meaningful, in-person relationships.

 

That is why community is such a hot topic right now. In the face of isolation, xenophobia, breakdowns in understanding and mistrust, there is something refreshing about being in the same room as a fellow human being. When we get to the point that we can be real and communicate without soundbites or tweets, we begin to realise that we are all still humans, from the newest president to the poorest worker.

 

The Price of Community is Vulnerability

 

But the price of community is vulnerability and vulnerability is not something our technologies are built to handle. Steven Furtick reminds us that we can often compare our real-life to the highlight reels that people project onto social media. Online, there is always a message to get across. In-person, there is just us.

 

The kinds of communities we need cut across the traditional racial or class or political barriers. Perhaps the reason why recent political decisions in the UK and US alike have come as such a surprise is that our technologies and platforms, from Twitter and Facebook to LinkedIn and Snapchat, encourage us to congregate in groups of the like-minded. In that environment, we only really hear the voices of people like us. In these echo chambers, we become convince that the whole world thinks like us. And then we get a short, sharp shock when it doesn’t work that way.

 

Diversity in Community

 

Some of the most valuable communities are those where people come from different walks of life, hold different political and ideological views but still choose to walk together.  I have been on boards of directors where there were disagreements but strong decisions were made. I have been in churches where people who originated from different countries and continents broke bread and laughed together.

 

If you have got this far and wonder why this is on a business blog, I have a simple answer. If we want our meetings to succeed, we need to build communities not just teams. If we want conferences to have a lasting impact, they need to help kick-start or maintain diverse communities. What if you managed to create an event that knocked-down the echo chambers, the class distinctions and the political fear and brought people together to learn from those who speak a wide variety of languages?

News: Edinburgh Conference Interpreter Scoops Three International Awards!

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 7, 2016

I am incredibly honoured and privileged to have won three (!) awards at this year’s Proz.com Community Choice Awards.

 

These annual awards are nominated and voted by members of the ProZ.com community, the world’s largest community for the Translation and Interpreting industries, with over 300,000 members worldwide.

 

This year, I was amazed to win three awards in the “Interpreting” section. These are:

 

Best Twitter (for my @integlangsbiz account)

Best Book for: Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence (Routledge, 2016)

and

Best Conference Speaker.

 

The past twelve months have been momentous for me both as a conference interpreter and as a researcher. Since this time in 2015, in those two areas alone, I have:

 

 

Needless to say, none of this could have happened without the support of clients, friends, family (including our eight month old, newest arrival), supervisors and colleagues. The world of conference interpreting and interpreting in general is an incredibly supportive one and it is my pleasure and honour to be part of it.