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When Bilingual isn’t Enough

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 26, 2019

It was a simple enough decision. A large engineering company I know of decided that, in advance of its sales meeting with a big buyer, they would translate the questionnaire he sent them. Surely, the best people to translate it would be their in-house French-speakers. On the face of it, it seems like a reasonable decision but the consequences of that decision say a lot about the risks businesses face when they expand abroad.

We all do it. We have a tweet we need to read or a document we need to get the gist of, so we throw it at Google Translate or some similar service. If we are lucky enough to know someone who speaks that language, we might ask them to give us a hand.

Often, that’s enough. Few people really need a professional Spanish translation of the latest perfume recommendation from their favourite Instagram influencer or a full explanation of that long rant from a Dutch person on Facebook. When all you need is the gist and nothing of great importance hinges on the result, machine translation is great.

Using Bilingual Staff

Sometimes, however, things are a bit more important than that. Maybe you really do need to know how your company was talked about in that article or, like the engineering company I mention at the top, you need to fill in a questionnaire or respond to a letter written in another language.

At such times, businesses will often turn to their own bilingual staff. Once again, that will sometimes work. Your own staff might be fantastic at shooting off a letter explaining your prices or giving you a fuller explanation of how your company was covered in a recent Cantonese magazine or reviewed on a Portuguese web page.

But sometimes even that isn’t enough.

When Being Bilingual isn’t Enough

For the engineering company I mentioned earlier, what went wrong was that their staff knew their jobs perfectly but missed some nuances in the questionnaire. That meant that the company’s responses made it look like they didn’t give a hoot about the quality of their products.

That would only come to light after a pretty tough discussion in the middle of a negotiation and a little interpreting fix I have written about elsewhere. In that particular case, a couple of little slips at the wrong moment nearly cost the company millions of pounds in lost sales.

Small decisions can have big consequences.

A good rule of thumb is to call in a language professional whenever getting it wrong could have massive consequences.

If your website is going to appear in another language, hiring a professional website translator or professioanl bilingual copywriter instead of asking someone in-house to do it will be the difference between a website that increases sales and one that ends up as another story of translation gone wrong.

If you are heading to a business negotiation or key conference, hiring a professional interpreter – rather than bringing along an untrained bilingual – will often be the difference between winning a new client and having to deal with confusion.

Knowing the Difference

It’s certainly not true that businesses need to hire professional translators and interpreters every time there is some kind of linguistic difference. And it certainly is true that having multilingual, multicultural staff in your company will be of great benefit. It’s also true that sometimes you really need a professional translator or interpreter.

Most people know instinctively the difference between illnesses that you can self-diagnose and self-treat and those where you really need to see a doctor. We also know that, if we delay going to the doctor too long, it can cause real problems for us down the line.

The same is true when it comes to languages. Sometimes, you need Google Translate, sometimes you need a bilingual member of staff and when it really matters most, you really need professional translators and interpreters.

If you would like help understanding exactly when and how to get te best out of professional translators and interpreters in your business, drop me an email to arrange a free, no obligation Zoom call.

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.