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“Can computer translators ever beat speaking in a foreign tongue?” – This BBC article can’t tell us

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 21, 2020

Dear BBC,

I know how much you pride yourself on journalistic integrity and I know how keen you are to show your contribution to society, given current debates over the license fee. I also know how hard your staff work. It’s because I know all these things that I have to regretfully point out that your recent piece “Can Computer Translators Ever Beat Speaking in a Foreign Tongue?” contains several serious flaws and is therefore incoherent and misleading.

Translation and Interpreting are different professions

Unlike The Guardian, you often use the words “translator” and “interpreter” interchangeably in your reporting. While this is passable in articles on what someone “spoke through a translator”, it’s really not acceptable when talking about the achievements of computers in the two very different professions.

Conflating translation and interpreting is rather like conflating neurology and urology. No-one would ask a urologist to diagnose a brain tumour. Similarly, it’s not a good idea to ask a literary translator to interpret at a sales meeting.

The difference between translation and interpeting is simple (and has been explained here before). Interpreters work in the moment, at events, meetings or conferences. Translators work on texts after they are written.

Computer Aided Translation tools don’t fit in your ear

That flaw is the source of the greatest proportion of inaccuracies in the article. For example, it speaks about Computer Aided Translation tools as if they can do everything from detecting repetitions to providing in-ear “translation”.

That is simply false. CAT tools are software packages used by translators. Among other functions, they store previously translated sentences and glossaries of terminology. The latest tools include all sorts of features, from the ability to handle a wide range of file formats to integration with machine translation services. This makes them indispensable for many translators.

CAT tools do not and cannot provide in-ear interpreting. That is the sole preserve of in-ear speech translation gadgets. Yes, I know the term “speech translation” is rather confusing but I spent a year writing a book that explains why those gadgets don’t really deserve the title “machine interpreting” yet.

Speech Translation and Credibility

Aside from that error, it is surprising that Andrew Ochoa of Waverly Labs was approached for quotes on the capabilities of speech translation.

You may not be aware but Waverly Labs have made claims that have turned out to be less impressive in the real world. Their first product, the Pilot Translating Earpiece was claimed to have taken us to “life untethered, free of language barriers ” in its glitzy marketing video. At the same time, their own Chief Engineer wrote that the underlying technology was at a place where “two conversation partners can understand reasonably well what each one is saying“.

With their new product, The Ambassador, they claim to offer “professional grade translation“. When I approached them for the data behind their claim, such data was not forthcoming. At the time of writing this, they still have not produced any publicy available data against which to test their claim.

Indeed, that claim has to be questioned since, in your article, Mr Ochoa is quoted as saying “When it comes to expressing emotion and intonation, we need sentiment analysis, which is not there yet but may well be in ten years time”. Either his company has already matched the quality of professional human interpreters, who take such tasks in their stride, or it hasn’t. Which is it?

Suffice to say, I would argue that we should be sceptical of their claim and subsequent predictions. His idea that we just need to add in sentiment analysis ignores the fact that research done since the early 1990s shows that interpreters explain, co-ordinate who can talk, summarise, change language register, reformulate, adjust pronoun use and clarify. And that’s just the tip of the icebergI would invite Mr Ochoa and his company to spend more time learning what interpreters do.

What actually is the question?

The final flaw in the article is its imprecision. The title of the article asks “can computer translators ever beat speaking in a foreign tongue?” The answer to that will be “no” for as long as computer translation or interpreting doesn’t give people the same access to the culture, politeness, and expectations that we gain when putting in the effort to learn a language.

If you had asked “will computers ever replace human translators?”, the answer would depend on the skill, field, and expertise of the human translator and what the translation will be used for.

If you had asked “will computers ever interpret better than professional human interpreters?”, the answer would depend on how we understand what interpreters do and whether we believe computers can ever gain the situational, social and cultural awareness that should be the stock in trade of any professional human interpreter.

Three very different questions would have led to three very different answers and three fascinating articles. It is just a pity that your article didn’t manage to cover any other these topics fairly, leading to confusing and misleading results.

Fixing the Issue

Apart from taking the example of The Guardian and making sure that interpreting and translation are no longer conflated, I would like to ask that you review the sources you approach for such articles.

For quotes on machine translation, it’s worth going to universities like Dublin City University (Prof Andy Way and his team are superb). For quotes on interpreting or translation, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting is an excellent UK source. For a realistic appraisal of speech translation technology, go to the team behind the IWSLT2020 conference.

I am happy to suggest sources for future articles myself, especially as I had to hunt them down for my recent book. Feel free to drop me an email at press@integritylanguages.co.uk and I will either put you in touch with an expert (with their permission) or give you a quote myself.

It’s worth getting this stuff right. People’s jobs and future are at risk.

The Real Difference Between Interpreting and Translation

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 11, 2020

Yesterday, the world was alight with praise for Sharon Choi, the interpreter of Oscar winner, Bong Joon Ho. And there is no doubt that she deserved it.

A few journalists however, through habit or lack of knowledge, called her a “translator”, which annoyed a good few interpreters. If your business is to make an impact with a wider audience, it really helps to know which service you need when. Sadly, the typical advice you get doesn’t always help.

Mostly, people tend to say that translators work with written language and interpreters work with spoken language. This is kind of true but discriminates unfairly against sign language interpreting and leaves some important gaps.

The Usual Definition Doesn’t Work

For example, if you are offering a chat system for customer service and you want to be able to deal with live queries from all your customers, no matter which language they speak, you might think you will need translators. Actually, some companies have found that, if short chats need to be turned into another language, interpreters can give better results than translators, since they are used to making decisions at high speed.

Similarly, you might think that creating the script for dubbing a film in another language would be a job for an interpreter, as it involves spoken language. Actually, it’s really a job for specialist translators, since both the original and translated scripts are written texts.

There’s a better way

Here’s a simpler and more accurate way to determine if you need a translator or interpreter:

Translators work on texts;

Interpreters work at events or meetings.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a film script, a contract or a website, texts are the preserve of translators. They tend to do their work after something has been written down and outside of the specific situation the text will be used for.

Interpreters do their work in front of an audience, while the situation is taking place. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Oscar acceptance speech, a negotiation or a meeting with the manager. It’s even interpreting if the interpreter isn’t physically there. If you are delivering a webinar or remote training or having a Zoom call with a supplier or client, if the meeting or event is still going on while the person is working, they are almost certainly an interpreter.

Just ask one question

This means that you just need to ask a single question:

Will the person be doing their work at the same time as I am on this or will their work come after mine?

If you need someone to turn your speech into British Sign Language or Swahili or French while you are speaking, you need interpreters. If it has been neatly typed up and you then need someone to turn that transcript into British Sign Language or Swahili or French, you need a translator.

If you need someone to turn English into French or German or Dutch during a meeting with a client or a conference on your industry, you need an interpreter. If you need someone to turn the English brochures and advertising materials into French or German or Dutch, you need a translator.

Just the beginning

Of course, knowing the difference between interpreting and translation is just the beginning. You still need to know whether to use an agency or hire a consultant and you will still need help to get the right team.

There are lots of useful guides available, like this quick guide. You can also drop me an email for help.

If you’d like to go deeper into the nitty-gritty of the difference between the two, watch out for an upcoming post on my research blog.

Less Greek Poetry, More Lifesaving, Please

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Holding a Conference in Edinburgh? Buy Local

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 10, 2016

 

So you have been persuaded by the elegant style, medieval mystery and classy charms of Scotland’s capital. Don’t be fooled by its small size. Edinburgh and the central belt are hotbeds of talent, including the translators and conference interpreters you will need to make your event a rousing success.

Much more than the Edinburgh Festival

Edinburgh is world-famous for many things: the castle, the architecture, and the Festivals, to name a few. Millions of tourists flock there every year and with hotels and venues to suit most budgets, it is an ideal location for events from huge conferences to weddings, from management retreats and AGMs to press conferences and product launches.

A good Edinburgh Destination Management Company will give you the lowdown on Edinburgh’s better known locations and best kept secrets and locals can also give you great tips on when to hold your event. For example, while you might be tempted to hold your conference in August, to give your delegates the chance to rub shoulders with Festival and Fringe stars, you are likely to find the city incredibly crowded and any travel plans will need to be made with a lot of room for manoeuvre.

What is often hidden about Edinburgh is the incredible level of innovation and expertise available in the city and its environs. For a relatively small city, it has four universities as well as numerous colleges. Why does this matter if you are coming to Edinburgh for an event? Those universities produce graduates in some of the key areas you need for your event to work, creating an enviable talent pool for you to choose from.

Why hire local?

This talent pool is not the only reason why it pays to hire local when meeting in Edinburgh. In these days of ever tightening budgets, travel is one of those costs that keeps being “rationalised”. Given that Edinburgh’s main bus company have adopted a set of fixed fares, the travel for those who live in the city will always be known in advance.

Of course, reducing travel expenses is simply part of the bonus of hiring locals. Less travel time also translates to less CO2 emissions and a more environmentally-friendly event. Add into that local knowledge that gets built up among those who regularly work events in the same city and you get a very cost-effective, high ROI way of hiring.

For International Events, Edinburgh has it covered

The Edinburgh talent pool really comes to the fore when it comes to international events. One of Edinburgh’s universities, Heriot-Watt University has its leafy campus on the west edge of the city and hosts one of Europe’s leading degree programmes for translation and interpreting. While many Heriot-Watt graduates head off to work in Brussels, Paris or even New York, a good number stay in the city or nearby, giving you access to expert conference interpreters and translators for your event.

When it comes to AV, there is a great company just over the Forth Bridge called AV Department, who can deal with everything from complex audience response systems to simple mic, amp and speaker setups. Between them and the local Heriot-Watt graduates, you can be sure that all your simultaneous translation needs (which the professional call ‘simultaneous interpreting’) will be covered, no matter how big and complex the event.

However big your event and however many languages you will need, Edinburgh has exactly the people you need to deliver great results every time. And with its vast array of talent across all the right disciplines, you can hire local experts in every area and watch your event really fly.

Want to talk direct to an Edinburgh-based consultant interpreter to get started organising your event? Drop me an email.

Beware of Casual Translators and Interpreters

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 4, 2016

The rise of crowdsourcing and casual work platforms like Fiverr and Upwork has revolutionised outsourcing. Whereas before, hiring someone to perform a service might involve looking up people in the Yellow Pages, calling them and visiting their office, now just about any service can be bought in with a single click. On the same platform, you can hire cleaners and writers, taxidermists and designers. It seems to promise great benefits for clients but are there risks?

 

Smart Budgeting Takes Risk into Account

 

Imagine you needed medical treatment. Which would you prefer to do, pay a doctor who had spent years training and specialising or hire a guy on a platform who said he read a couple of books on physiology during his college days?

 

It’s a laughable question. There are some services where the risk is too great to do anything but call in a professional. We understand this almost without thinking but we almost always draw the lines in strange places.

 

Here’s a simple example. You might spend thousands of pounds (or euros) setting up your business website and then the same amount again getting a web shop set up. You wouldn’t dream of leaving your corporate image to a guy whose only experience was mucking around with WordPress one boozy Saturday.

 

Yet after all that investment, it is still common to see business people being advised to use google translate for web forms or hire random people from Fiverr and Upwork to produce versions of their website in other languages. We want to spend good money on the original version and yet skimp on the budget when we want to reach new markets.

 

Unprofessional Translators and Interpreters Put Your Business at Risk

 

If it sounds silly, it should. A bad translation can make a mockery of all the hard work you put in to your business in the first place. Would you want the newest offering from your restaurant to be translated as “Supreme Court Beef”?  Would you want the delegates of your conference to be stumped when the interpreters give up and go home?

 

As Jay Soriano wrote, while the gig economy is indeed thriving on places like Fiverr, it would be naïve to expect the quality to be much higher than the price tag. For small, one-off jobs with low importance for your business, platforms like that will work a treat. When your reputation is on the line, it simply isn’t worth the risk.

 

The smart way to buy translation and interpreting

 

Reducing the risk of something going wrong is easy. While I have written lots of more detailed posts on this, let me just outline some basic principles here.

 

  • Look for signs of accountability: professional memberships are a great place to start
  • Look for signs of contribution and growth: a translator or interpreter who is doing great work will only sustain that level by continued training and giving back to their profession. It is easy to see when that is the case.
  • Look for someone who asks intelligent questions: if someone offers you a quote without any clarifications, stay away!
  • Look for interest: if the translator or interpreter seems to be treating your work as ‘just another assignment’, it is unlikely that they will be delivering great quality. For their work to be great, they have to have a great understanding of your work.

 

If you would like more detailed help, feel free to get in touch. I am always happy to point people in the right direction.

Do Webinars Work?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 10, 2016

They have become ubiquitous in most industries. The ease with which we can now beam live audio and video over large distances has led to an explosion in online training in the form of webinars, MOOCs and other online courses. Sure, organisations like Open University have been harnessing that kind of technology for years but the number of providers continues to grow almost exponentially.

 

But wait, have we ever sat down and had a serious conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of this way of learning? Sure, we all know about the fact that webinars make it possible to learn wherever you are and they seem to democratise access to knowledge but are they actually effective?

 

I am sure that, even by asking that question, I am tacitly inviting providers to slap me round the head with satisfaction statistics and stories of happy clients. As someone who has created webinars myself, I am not about to gnaw on a hand that fed me but still, we would be wise to be cautious.

 

When I went through my training as a university lecturer, we were introduced to the idea that there are such things as deep and surface learning. Surface learning is the name given to the (temporary) memorisation of facts and figures, such that you can regurgitate them later. Deep learning is when the knowledge becomes part of you and makes an actual, lasting difference.

 

If you take Marta Stelmaszak’s Business School for Translators, for example, surface learning might involve writing a marketing plan or thinking for a few minutes about your business strategy. Deep learning would be applying it each day to your work.

 

My fear is that the very setup of webinars, which very much resemble old-style university lectures, encourage short-term, surface learning. Just like those leading university lectures, webinar leaders can and do encourage deep learning by setting exercises and offering individualised feedback. But, in my experience, this kind of involvement is still all too rare. The more common (although thankfully, not universal) model is for the webinar to stand alone as a unit with very little in the way of support or monitoring before, during or after.

 

Universities have learned that the traditional model of an “expert” taking for an hour while a group of novitiates sit and take notes is not exactly the most effective way of teaching. People seem to learn better when they are involved in the process and get a chance to apply their knowledge as soon as possible.

 

Do webinars allow this? How often do those attending a webinar lose focus and browse cat pictures in another tab?

 

At the very least, I think it is time to have open honest conversations about what webinars can and can’t do and where in-person teaching, as expensive as it can be, is the best option. Oddly enough, it’s a lesson that even the old-hands at Open University have learned, as they combine multimedia, online learning with a few choice sessions, in-person with a tutor and the rest of the class.

 

I don’t pretend to know all the answers and even writing this has opened more questions than answers in my head. The whole area is crying out for research and for providers to think beyond the kinds of questions found in a satisfaction survey.

 

I do know that, for now at least, I want to concentrate on in-person courses both in the CPD I deliver and in the CPD I attend. As an interpreter, I know that there is something about being there in the room with other learners and with an experienced tutor that you simply don’t get from a webinar. It is even better when you are learning alongside your clients and growing with them too. This is not denying that webinars have their place;  yet I do wonder whether we need to rethink the format.

Four Secrets of Delivering Great Service to Clients

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 16, 2016

How often are you blown away by the quality of service you receive?

Many companies seem to hide behind automatic telephone menus, impenetrable terms and conditions and feigning ignorance, doing all they can to make it hard for their clients. Actually, even in the very worst cases, some companies, like a certain toy manufacturer, even try to transfer the blame for things going wrong.

Yet, in today’s crowded markets, companies who stand out with their service levels will win the day. The events manager who hires the very best suppliers, even when it reduces their immediate margins, the interpreter who watches the room and not the clock, the translator whose research goes beyond terminology to discover the messages that work for a specific market.

But what does that even look like? For those of us in business-to-business markets, there are 4 clear signs of great service.

1)    Great service starts from first contact

I am on the look-out for a good binder to bind my PhD thesis.  I wrote to three different suppliers, one of which came recommended. However, despite the glowing recommendations and assurances that they do a great job, I wrote them off as a possibility within a few minutes. Why would I do that?

The answer is simple: their emails were awful. Sure, I am not employing them to write emails but, like it or not, people judge us by the quality of our communication. If someone asks for a quote, don’t send them prices for all the component parts and fail to add them all together. If someone sends questions, answer them all.

Basic details like starting with a nice greeting and ending with a professional sign-off can make a world of difference. Similarly, sounding approachable and friendly on the telephone or having a good handshake can make an unbelievable difference.

2)    Great service offers custom solutions

Recently, I received an email from a client, asking some questions about the setup of interpreting at an event. In those cases, there are always two solutions. You can either send a generic, flat response, or you can read through the requirements carefully and create a plan that is tailor-made for the client. For me, generic is never an option.

We are all time-poor and there will always be a temptation to go for off-the-peg generic solutions but the more generic you are, the greater your competition. If you can show that you have really thought through what your client wants and can deliver it well, you will have a strong advantage over anyone else.

Imagine that you are running a multilingual event. While it might sound good enough to add in a line saying that you will “source interpreters”, that alone is pretty generic. It’s much better to show you know your stuff by explaining just how you would source interpreters and better yet, to describe how you will ensure that you get the right interpreters for the right role at the event. After all, the demands of interpreting conversations for exhibitors are completely different to handling the highlight address by a leading expert.

3)    Great service is human

No matter how good technology gets, people will always want to talk to people. How often have you desperately wanted to find the “talk to an operator” button in an automated menu? How many times have you been frustrated by websites that just send you round in circles when you need help?

For events, apps will never replace competent staff and skilled suppliers. People will always want to talk to people. For conference interpreters, ensuring that what you say is connecting with the audience will always win more plaudits than making sure you echo the exact linguistic structure of the original speech.

4)    Great service integrates the big picture and the details

I spend a lot of time chatting with translators. Translators make a living being fiendishly brilliant with details. They don’t just understand words; they sleep, eat, live and breathe them. For a translator to really succeed, however, they need to learn how to take their natural passion for tiny details and fuse it with an ability to understand what a write is trying to do through an entire text.

It’s the same in event management. Sure, you want to get the décor to be perfect and the layout to be on the money but those details only make sense in the context of what the client wants the entire event to achieve. While we might admire those who can keep track of every minute of the conference agenda, clients will ultimately judge events by their results.

For all of us, whether we are suppliers or managers, accommodation providers or entertainers, the challenge is to blow clients away with our attention to detail while amazing them by delivering better results than they could possibly imagine. We can only do that by paying attention to how we communicate, creating customised solutions, treating our clients like human beings and nailing the details so the big picture works.

So You Want to Study Translation or Interpreting…

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 22, 2014

Every so often, I get an email from someone who really, really wants to become a translator or interpreter. After I let them know about what the job entails and point them towards ITI, the next question is pretty predictable:

So where is the best place to study?

To be honest, the answer to this differs from person to person but this post will give you a handy guide of what to look for. So, here are my top 5 tips for finding a great university to study translation or interpreting.

1)    Know what you want to study and why

This seems pretty obvious but it is actually quite common that someone will say they want to be a professional translator but actually fall in love with research. Conversely, I have seen people really fed-up with degrees where you get to talk a lot about translation and never actually do any. It is really important that you know what you want out of the degree you are going to study.

2)    Go hunting

The first stage after that is to go hunting for universities that do what you want to do. For translation and conference interpreting, the hunt can be narrowed-down quite quickly as you can find a list of universities training translators and/or interpreters on the CIUTI website. Now, not all good universities are on that list but it gives you a good start. You can also try looking at national translation associations to see what links they have with universities (some, such as ITI even allow universities to have some kind of membership). Lastly, of course, there is good old googling. The point of all this is to get you a list of candidate universities that you can then narrow down.

For this reason, I would suggest finding as many candidates at this point as you can. If your personal situation allows, look abroad, especially in the languages where your second and/or third languages are spoken. Cast the net wide and you are more likely to find the right place.

3)    Read feedback

Here in the UK, we have a wonderful tool called the National Student Survey. This lists the feedback that every university in the country has had from its final year students. Suffice to say, if the students rated a university poorly, it should be way down your list. For outside the UK, it is worth doing a search for university alumni groups on LinkedIn and/or Facebook and sending a message to the administrator letting them know that you would like to speak to people who have studied translation or interpreting.

The great thing with asking alumni, especially recent alumni, is that the courses will be fresh in their minds and they will be able to give you the kind of information that universities don’t normally give away. Sure, the student:staff ratio might be small but how do the tutors treat the students? Sure, 50% of graduates might go to the EU to work but what about preparing you for freelancing?

Ask a few intelligent questions and you will get a very good idea of how you might (or might not!) benefit from the course.

4)    Read staff profiles

This might sound strange and, to be honest, you can only do it properly for a few universities, but it is a neat trick. All decent universities will have a list of staff and their research interests somewhere on their site. These “research interests” can be very revealing. If, for instance, staff are doing research on practical aspects of translation and interpreting such as training, working with clients, or policy then the likelihood is that the degrees they offer will have a more practical bent. If, on the other hand, staff tend to research stuff like “15th century postmodernist esoteric literature” then it is likely that they will be more theoretical.

This is, once again, about matching what you want out of a degree with what the university are likely to provide. If you want to study a postgraduate degree then the chances are that you too will end up doing some research. In that case, research interests that interest you take on even greater importance.

Too long; didn’t read?

In short, finding the right university course is all about knowing what you want them to provide and finding a course that gets as close to that as possible. It can take time to find the right place but your career will thank you for doing so later.