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Why Speech Translation Apps Fail

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 25, 2018

The Events Management world loves technology. From holograms to RFID badges and from giant robots to automated registration, everyone is on the lookout for some new piece of kit that will drastically improve delegate experience.

In this world, it’s no wonder that machine interpreting/speech translation apps and devices are generating excitement. From the one-way only ili to the shiny in-ear devices from Waverly Labs, millions of dollars have been thrown the way of companies willing to push the boundaries of language technology. Given their slick publicity, even some event managers have got caught up.

Yet there is one small problem with every single one of these devices. They might generate great results in lab tests but, once you take them out into the real-world, the problems quickly emerge. From Tencent’s public fiasco to Wired UK discovering the disappointing truth about the performance of Google’s speech translation pixel buds, it seems that the hype around these devices bears no resemblance to their actual performance.

Why?

Machines Don’t Actually Interpret

What the tech companies don’t tell you is that none of them actually understand what interpreters do. Their devices do three very clever things: they turn speech into text in one language (voice recognition & transcription), then turn that text into text into another language (machine translation), then turn that text into speech again (voice synthesis).

It’s all very smart but saying that interpreters do voice recognition, translation and synthesis is like saying that pianists hit piano keys, press pedals with their feet and follow a rhythm. It’s true but it misses out huge chunks of the process.

Despite all the great shifts in machine learning, the biggest weakness in all speech translation and machine interpreting is that it is not interpreting. It’s not that the technology is bad; it’s that it’s not actually doing the task it is sold to do.

So what do human interpreters do?

Explaining what human interpreters do would take an entire book but there are a few things that buyers need to know about human interpreters. Here are three fundamental ones.

  • Interpreters deal with intonation

Take the English sentence “I only told her I loved her.” That sentence can have seven different meanings according to which word is stressed. In many languages, that would lead to seven different ways of  interpreting that same sentence. Multiply that across an entire speech and you can see that missing the intonation in one sentence can throw off the entire meaning of the talk.

For the moment at least, machine interpreting/speech translation can only deal with the words that are said. Zero intonation and stress data are passed from the voice recognition engine to the machine translation engine. Any meaning that is not found in the words on the page is lost.

  • Interpreters deal with status and number

This might be hard for monolingual English speakers to understand but there is no one way of translating or interpreting “Please sit down” into French or German or any other language that has more than one word for “you”. A human interpreter would know immediately whether you are addressing one or many people and whether there was a difference in social status or need for politeness that would determine which word for “you” they should use. Machines simply don’t know and can’t know.

That might seem like a minor issue but, in the context of say, trying to sell products or negotiating a million-pound deal, the minor annoyance and rudeness of getting that wrong can make a difference. Would you want to take the risk?

  • Interpreters deal with context

This sums up every other point but deserves its own emphasis. Research into real-world interpreting keeps on showing just how many decisions interpreters take because of the context in which they work. They explain culture-specific terms, unknot misunderstandings, shift the language they use according to the needs of the audience, and make smart decisions as to how to deliver the message to the audience. And those are just the differences we know about!

Any machine interpreting system that misses out on intonation, social status and context is doomed to failure because those aspects are just as important as the individual words said by the speaker.

 

These new devices absolutely represent a step forward in technology and might just replace venerable old phrase books in every traveller’s back pocket but for your next event, you should definitely choose humans.

 

If your next event involves more than one language, it makes sense to get help from an expert to get exactly the right interpreting. If you need a consultant to make sure you get great interpreting  when it matters most to you, send me a message so we can chat through the results you want and how best to get them.

 

Replacing interpreters with interpreters who know technology

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 13, 2018

Interpreters will not be replaced by technology; they will be replaced by interpreters who use technology – Bill Wood, company founder, DS Interpretation

That quote has become the interpreting equivalent of translators answering “it depends on context” to even the simplest question and agencies asking for “your best rate”. But what does it mean and is it accurate? Even more to the point, why should you care if you are buying interpreting?

The “undeniable facts” of interpreting technology

The impulse behind the quote that started this post seems to be these five “undeniable facts”:

  • After a slow start, new technologies are now filtering into interpreting and shaping work,
  • And they will continue to do so,
  • Those who learn how to use the technologies to their benefit and to the benefit of their clients gain a first mover advantage in the marketplace,
  • Those who lag behind are in danger of having out-dated business models that will not survive after everyone clambers to get on the high-tech bandwagon,
  • Therefore, it is a good business strategy to learn technologies now!

Now, apart from the fact that those facts have been true to some degree at any point in the development of the modern interpreting profession (which is only about 60-70 years old anyway, if we concentrate on conference interpreting), there is plenty of room to debate how far those five assumptions are both accurate and meaningful.

And of course, this still sidesteps the question of  their application to other forms of interpreting. What affects the conference hall might not touch the courts; the difference maker in the doctor’s office might have no effect on the negotiating room.

So, are new technologies changing interpreting? From the point of view of interpreters, yes they are (depending on where and how you work). From the point of view of clients, it remains to be seen. Can clients tell the difference between remote interpreting and in-person interpreting? That remains to be tested. 

Will technologies continue to filter into interpreting? Well, yes but that is practically a truism in any profession. Try to find an accountant who still keeps paper cashbooks or a lawyer who never looks up case law online.

Now what about the first mover advantage and the slow mover disadvantage? As a researcher, I have to say that I have seen absolutely zero objective evidence that interpreters who are adopting any form of technology are seeing any economic advantage (one for a PhD student to study, methinks). And we all know our share of old-school interpreters, who think that being high-tech means accepting contracts by email, yet they still make a packet.

Why People Forecast the Triumph of Interpreting Technology

The famed competitive advantage of adopting technology is a forecast, rather than a reality. We think it will be that way because that forecast serves the purpose of … selling technology. I really don’t think clients care a hoot whether we have a paperless booth or turn up with an armful of vellum scrolls. Results, not techniques, are the order of the day.

There is, of course, the rather more sound economic argument that technologies can increase service availability and so allow more streams of income. That kind of works … until we read research that tells us about video remote sign language interpreters ending up with worse pay and conditions than their in-person colleagues. If there is an economic advantage to that technology, it isn’t being felt by the interpreters. And I doubt it is being seen by the buyers either.

A More Realistic View

Adopting technology for the sake of adopting technology is a really cruddy business strategy. Being smart and adopting technologies that allow you to offer better service levels and products that are better suited to your market is much better.

So maybe the quote should actually be “interpreters will not be replaced by technology but by interpreters who make smart business decisions as to the technologies they adopt.”. Admittedly, that isn’t as good a soundbite. But it is more intellectually honest.

What about buyers?

My advice to buyers is simple. Take a good look at what you are being offered. If you receive a quote with a load of techno-babble you don’t understand, walk away. If, instead, you get chatting with someone who actually cares to find out what you are trying to achieve and sends a quote explicitly showing you how it can be done, you have found the right person.

It’s not about high-tech or low-tech; it’s about getting the right tech to deliver what the buyer wants. And if that means vellum scrolls this week and shiny apps the next, so be it. The interpreting world is too complex for short quips to sum it up.

 

What Does a Consultant Interpreter Actually Do?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 14, 2018

For most businesses who don’t have an HQ in Brussels, Paris or some other city where conference interpreting is ubiquitous, the phrase “consultant interpreter” will seem entirely foreign. So what is one and what can they do for you?

To answer that question, we need to think about how interpreters are traditionally hired. For many companies, hiring an interpreter means sending an email to an interpreting agency with a brief for the event, sending over documents and then waiting for the interpreters to turn up on the day.

There is not a lot obviously wrong with that model and, as I mention in my free Buying Interpreting Step-by-Step course, there are times when going to an interpreting agency is exactly what you need to do.

Yet, there comes a time in many businesses where running international events becomes a regular feature of your work. There might also be occasions where the event is so special or so valuable that you want greater partnership than the traditional agency model can easily provide.

This is where consultant interpreters come in. As both a practising interpreter in their own right and someone who knows how to build specialist interpreting teams, they know how to match your exact needs with interpreters on the market. They will know who is excellent for sales events and who is better in board meetings. Why? Because they will tend to have worked alongside the people they recommend and will have first-hand experience of their strengths and weaknesses.

As well as building you a custom interpreting team, a good consultant interpreter will also have relationships with suppliers of interpreting equipment. That relationship alone could save you hours of frustration!

Lastly, here’s something that few people know. Consultant interpreters really are consultants too. If you have a question about the best order to speeches to keep people awake or the right interpreting equipment or even the best way to address guests from different countries, ask your consultant interpreter. They will have the knowledge and experience to either answer those questions themselves or find you the right person to answer them.

 

Now that you have seen what a consultant interpreter can do, isn’t it time you chatted with one? Drop me an email using the contact form for a free Skype chat to see how working with a consultant interpreter could super-charge your business.

The Million Pound Reason You Should Still Choose Human Interpreters

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 3, 2018

Imagine the scene:

 

It has been a long negotiation. The British company are keen to widen their client base and have managed to secure a meeting with an unbelievably big French buyer. The French buyer wants to secure a more robust supply chain and he knows that this company will deliver.

 

Both companies want a good result. Right now you wouldn’t know that.

 

Right now, they are locked in a corridor-stomping, wall-pointing, chart-explaining disagreement. And it’s not even over something complex. They have already sorted out packaging and delivery, size and spec. But right now they are arguing over quality statistics.

 

And right now, you are about to witness the turning point of the whole meeting, One interpreter, one word, one sudden realisation of what the real issue is.

 

“The interpreter believes there has been a misunderstanding.”

 

Those weren’t the exact words I used but the meaning is the same. Within less than five minutes, the disagreement was resolved (you will have to wait for my next book to read exactly how). Within less than two hours, clearance was given for a test order, which would be the last hurdle between the British company and a contract worth several million pounds.

 

The truth is, the success of most meetings depends on more than accurate interpreting. For meetings to work, you need interpreters who are sensitive to context, able to spot and resolve cultural miscues and shifts in nuance and professionals who are brave enough to make intelligent decisions.

 

One day, we might have apps that can deliver perfectly accurate interpreting. Between some languages and in some subjects, machine translation is already delivering acceptable results for written texts using controlled language. But what stands between you and the sale is rarely “accurate interpreting.” What you need to succeed is excellent interpreting.

 

And, for the foreseeable future you will need humans for that.

 

If your company is heading for a conference or meeting that just has to be right, I can build you an interpreting team that delivers when it matters most. Drop me an email to set up a free, no obligation skype meeting.

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?