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The Pleasure of Looking Outwards

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 29, 2018

I have recently attended two events. The first was ScotExport18, organised by Scottish Enterprise. Largely driven from the stage, with a range of inspiring experts and speakers, it seemed aimed mostly at newer exporters – business seeing contact with the wider world as a track to properity and growth.

The second event was an event run by CBI Scotland, that challenged businesses of all sizes to see Scotland regain its position as a trading nation. Variously hashtagged as #TradingNation2018 and #TradingNations2018, it paradoxically had more traditional speeches but provided more spaces for businesses to discuss issues with each other.

While each event was different, the same themes came through in both. Businesses are actively looking to export and at every stage, they need to help of mentors, government agencies and professionals. Expertise exists but is not always easy to find or access and different sectors have different requirements.

While a couple of weeks ago, I pointed to the lack of any specific language industry experience at those events, I now see things slightly differently. Yes, translators and interpreters and their associations do need to step up and gain a voice in the commercial world but the comparitive lack of knowledge of the sector is an opportunity, not a threat.

The media might like to flag up xenophobia and fear but, among large sections of the business community, the opposite attitude is prevailing. Many businesses want to work abroad, creating opportunities and jobs both here and there. As businesses export, economies grow and horizons expand.

So perhaps it’s time to dial down the negativity and turn off the heckling. If the excitement at ScotExport and Trading Nations is anything to go by, there is huge growth potential left in the UK Language Sector. Who’s up for exploring?

#ScotExport and the missing language sector

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 13, 2018

This time last week, I attended the excellent ScotExport 2018 event, run by Scottish Enterprise. Among the useful sessions on building your international network, exporting for the first time and (oh yes!) Brexit, there was cautious optimism in the air that Scottish companies can still find ways to thrive, no matter the economic and political weather.

We heard from immigration lawyers, tax experts, experienced exporters, and even a government minister. We heard about legislation, customs procedures, cultural awareness and even the value of Scottish kitsch (apparently kilts and whiskies still pull in clients).

But there was a topic that was mentioned but had no actual experts speaking. While many of the speakers mentioned the dreaded “Language Barrier” and offered helpful tips about circumventing it (mostly involving alcohol and karaoke), there were precisely zero actual language industry people on-stage. This was a giant elephant in the room.

There are two reasons why that is a problem:

  1. Without the language industry, most exporting and importing stops. From translating manuals and contracts to enabling businesses to negotiate deals by supplying expert interpreting, languages make exporting work. Low visibility for the sector at key events like that one not only does the sector a disservice but risks selling the myth that the UK sucks at languages. Yes, we have a very low rate of second language learning but we have a strong and vigorous language services sector, manned by those rare Brits who took the time to learn other languages and by thousands of nationals of other countries who have made the UK home.
  1. An event on exporting with no space for language experts can lead to businesses getting bad or limited advice. While, for the most part, the export experts said all the right things, some of the strategies mentioned were a bit on the risky side. Yes, you can find an interpreter once you arrive in a country but unless you know where to find the good ones, you are as likely to get a keen amateur as an actual professional. To save their blushes, and their bank balance, it is vital that businesses get the right advice on how to find the right interpreters and translators when it matters most.

Whether you are a business keen to export or a language professional wondering when export shows will feature translators and interpreters, the message is the same:

There’s no such thing as a language barrier; just opportunities to win new markets. When exporting businesses work with with expert translators and interpreters, there are no limits to what can happen next.

 

 

And if you are looking for advice on how to best use translation and interpreting as part of your export strategy, it’s time we had a chat. Drop me an email to find out more.

Interpreting and Accent-shaming

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 9, 2018

I would not normally tell this story. This blog is usually aimed at clients and so I rarely write about issues like this. But since this one directly affects clients, I think it needs to be discussed.

The Day I was Accent-Shamed

It’s more than ten years since I was a trainee interpreter, working towards my masters at Heriot-Watt University. The course was great, the support was fantastic and I met people there with whom I still work. But one day was not OK.

From the second semester, we had a weekly mock conference. This, for me, was the most valuable part of the entire course. A few times, the university would being in practising interpreters too.

One of these “professionals” nearly ended my career before it started. He was sent as pedagogical assistance from one of the European international organisations. He was smartly dressed, with impeccable English and he knew he was good.

During the mock conference he heard, I had a really bad day. I hadn’t prepared properly, the speeches seemed harder than usual and it just all went wrong. When I saw the guy at the end of the lesson, he shot me a haughty look and said.

“I don’t think you’re cut out for interpreting. Your performance wasn’t good enough. Oh and that accent has to go.”

Three sentences, three blows to my confidence, three reasons to give up then and there. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the amazing Lila Guha coming and encouraging us a few weeks later, I would have quit. I am glad I didn’t. But it was heart-breakingly close.

The Truth About Accents

I know I am not the only interpreter who has been told that they needed a more “neutral accent” to survive. It probably comes from the right place. Everyone wants conference interpreters to sound professional and be easy to understand. It’s probably what clients want too, right?.

Contrary to the advice I often received, my accent has proven to be a boon. Not many people who grow up a short bus ride from Glasgow ever make to interpreting school. For jobs on fisheries policy, for example, where pretty much all the delegates arrive with strong accent of their own, having a booth full of people who aren’t scared of Aberdonian English or Northern French helps to settle the organiser’s nerves.

For clients, the interpreters’ accents rarely seem to be an issue. Perhaps it’s because their world is full of accents already.

Being Easy to Understand does not Require a “Neutral Accent”

Go into any tradeshow and you will hear a plethora of accents. Attend any international confernece and Geordie will rub shoulders with Mexican Spanish, while North African French mingles with Chinese-flavoured German. The events at which we work are incredibly diverse. Shouldn’t the interpreters be too?

The whole “neutral accent” issue seems to boils down to two problems.

The first is whether your accent is so strong that it impedes understanding. For interpreters, that is actually an issue. Clients do need to be able to follow us, after all.

When clients are incomprehensible, it is usually more to do with using an unfamiliar lingua franca or reading from a typed manuscript. We never tire of advising speakers to speak from notes and use their native language.

It is doubtful that incomprehensible interpreters would ever make it through training. Gaps in language skills, pronunciation errors and articulation problems will be caught be careful tutors. Being able to express yourself clearly, no matter your home region, is a basic skill.

Yet being comprehensible and losing your native regional accent are two entirely different things. By all means, let’s encourage Glaswegians to slow down a bit and replace their glottal stops for the consonants that were originally there. But let’s not tell them that they have to sound like Eton graduates if they want to get work.

The Need to Reflect Diversity

The second problem with our push for “neutral accents” is that it hides the diversity of modern international events.

If the conference hall is home to a range  accents, surely the interpreting booth should be too. What does it say to clients if make it a mark of professionalism to turn a diverse speaking lineup into a parade of soundalikes? If the conference is for slang-using lumberjacks, isn’t it a bit weird for the interpreters’ voices to make them sound like yuppies?

So where do we go?

If event managers are facing the need to think more carefully about the messages they send when they choose speakers and panel members, then interpreters need to think more carefully about the messages we send to our clients and to new interpreters.

We can, and indeed should, continue to hang on to the requirement that interpreters are easy to understand for everyone listening. But, in a world increasingly aware of the benefits of diversity and the problems of privilege, we really do need to drop the “neutral accent” thing.

No modern linguist would see “neutral accents” as anything more than linguistic discrimination. Received Pronunciation and Midland American English are two specific accents among many. When we ask interpreters to strip off their accents, we are asking them to distance themselves from an important part of their identity, while attempting to create an interpreting profession full of soundalike clones.

If even the big national broadcasters can see the benefit of letting people hear a variety of voices, shouldn’t we?

Sure, some clients will prefer some accents, just as some interpreters prefer certain kinds of speakers. But the market is big enough and varied enough for the world of interpreting to reflect the diverse, multi-accented world in which we work.

Over to you:

If you are an events manager or interpreting buyer, do you have a preference for certain accents?

If you are an interpreter, have you ever been told to drop your accent? Did you?
Would you ever advise an interpreter to drop their accent?

Everything you need to know about untranslatable words

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 19, 2018

They don’t exist.

That’s it.

 

 

Yeah, I know, that’s kind of disappointing but it’s true.

Throw “manscaping” at any of the interpreters I work with and ask them how to say it in another language and they will not shrivel up and tell you it’s impossible.

I don’t work with interpreters who look at words and run away shrieking “that’s impossible.”

They will probably say those immortal, almost stereotypical translator/interpreter words: “it depends on context.”

Come across “manscaping” at an academic philology conference and the interpreters will handle it one way. Throw them it during an international convention on the male beauty industry and they will deal with it differently.

Same with “sobremesa“, “esprit d’escalier” or literally any other “untranslatable word” you care to mention.

None of them are worthy of the name because interpreting isn’t about finding the word for “irn-bru” in German or the English for “laïque”. Interpreters produce language based on meaning, intention, purpose and, yes, context.

That’s why we take as much interest in what you are trying to do at your next meeting as we do in the terminology you use. That’s why knowing the agenda and the goals of the meeting are just as important (if not more so) than knowing your preferred German word for “dumper truck”.

What you need to know about every single article on untranslatable words, apart from this satirical one, is that they are all poor simplifications of what translation or interpreting actually are. You can safely use them for entertainment and nothing else.

And when you really want to understand what is going on, when your business success depends precisely on your presentation being as persuasive in French as it is in English, drop me an email.

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.

Lessons from Ten Years in Business

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 30, 2018

This month, I have the honour of celebrating 10 years in business. It has been a fun, frustrating, incredible, disappointing, worrying, and inspiring journey and so I thought it would be a great opportunity to pass on some of the big lessons I have learned.

  • The path less-taken is the one where the fun is.

This lesson could also be entitled “ignore the platforms” or “never take the first option.” You see, for my first three or so years in business, I followed the crowd in my industry and thought that I would concentrate my marketing on a small number of big, established platforms.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with those platforms and I did win one or two long-term clients from there but it is no accident that, as I learned more about business and understood more about my potential clients, I weaned myself off using those platforms for marketing.

No matter how much traffic comes to fiverr or translatorscafe, the fact is that your image on those platforms is largely outside of your control. If they redesign the interface, you have no choice but to go along with it. If they prioritise members who buy super-amazing-annual-gold-star-plus membership, you will lose out if you don’t pay them money all the time.

Conversely, if you choose to get off your butt and try other ways of winning clients, while the results will take longer to come, they will eventually be better. In 2017, I found myself parting on good terms with the very last client I had who had come from platforms and celebrating amazing growth in my client list from other forms of marketing.

  • Get off your butt.

There is a very persistent myth that you can create a super-rich business without leaving your house, purely on social media and online bidding.

While social media is now a vital part of my own marketing, it took me too long to learn that very few clients will pay excellent money to someone they only know from a twitter thread about Boris Johnson’s hair.

The longer I am in business, the more vital it becomes to leave the house: going to tradeshows, networking, meeting decision-makers, doing in-person CPD and even more besides. The stronger the relationship you have with someone, the more of their hard-earned cash they will be willing to spend.

It’s no surprise that my social media strategist and all of my closest business advisors are people I know from in-person events.

  • Leave the echo chamber

Yes, it’s always nice to spend time online and offline with colleagues and yes, referrals are important but all business-people need to spend as much time in the world of their potential clients as they do with people who share their opinions, loves, and obsession with the Oxford comma.

One of the biggest trends I am seeing in my own profession is that the good professionals are becoming less tolerant of online whinging and are instead promoting the view that we should be trying to learn more about our clients. That is a very good thing. The more we learn about our clients, the more we can help them achieve what they want to achieve.

  • Not everyone needs to love you

The corollary to the point above is that it is too easy to get wrapped-up in “reputation management” and “engagement” and try to be all things to all people. Oddly, it was only when I tried to target a niche and actually have opinions that my business really got off the ground. For as long as I was using the same, safe terminology and tactics and saying the same things as everyone else, getting sales was like pulling teeth.

Obviously, you shouldn’t act like a moron or spout derogatory remarks. But you should do your homework and have some kind of opinion. Have something interesting to say and back it up with the way you deliver your services.

Some people won’t like what you do. Some people won’t get it. Some people will tell you to pack in your dreams and get a “proper job”. As long as you are being sensible and not trying to launch a business selling rain to Scotland or selling tulips to Dutch people, and as long as you are willing to learn and adjust, you will be fine.

  •  Never stop learning

I can truly say that I have learned more in the year and a half since I graduated with my PhD than I did during it.

Doing a PhD is incredible but, as much as anything else, you learn how to be critical, generate and analyse data, think and express yourself. Take those skills into the business world and suddenly you have the keys to learn incredibly practical subjects such as business development, market segmentation, funnel creation and networking.

Wherever you are in your career, never stop learning from people in your field and people who can’t even spell your job title! Often you will learn more from “outsiders” than you will from experts in your own area.

 

All these things might sound very general … and they are. Yes, I have learned all sorts of technical and business skills in the past ten years and I still shake my head at the naivety I had at the start. But I wouldn’t have managed to learn all those skills without learning the lessons of taking a different path, getting off my butt to leave the echo chamber, understanding that I don’t need to please everyone and always learning more.

For now, I am excited to see what the next ten years will bring!

 

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?

 

 

Interpreting is Expensive … But the Alternatives Cost More

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 8, 2017

It’s always a surprise when event managers receive the response to their Request for a Quote for interpreting at an event. Even the simplest simultaneous interpreting setup seems to cost thousands of pounds. Is it really worth it?

 

There is no getting away from the fact that interpreting is expensive. And while the traditional justification has been to write long posts on how hard interpreting is (and it is hard) or to talk about the training interpreters have to take to be able to deliver at a high level (lots), that doesn’t mean a lot to you. No matter how good interpreting is, if it has no value for your company, it won’t be worth it.

 

One common response to the cost of interpreting is simply to decide to do everything in English. In some cases, that might seem like a very good short-term decision, especially as English is a global language. But what works in the short-term is often ruinous in the longer-term. Statistics from the House of Lords showed that companies in the UK lose out on £50 billion worth of contracts each year due to a lack of language skills.

 

English-only meetings and events might be cheap to set up but by displaying a lack of cultural awareness and language abilities, you will be putting customers off rather than winning them over. Conversely, when potential customers see that you care enough to have professional communications in their first language, they are more likely to see you as trustworthy and be more comfortable parting with their cash.

 

Choosing to do business in only one language leads to inevitable communication struggles. Every conference interpreter can tell stories of speakers who really should have used the interpreters that were available. For me, one of the most striking stories happened at a specialist construction event. Two Italian businesses had the opportunity to showcase their work. The first team presented in broken English, even though there were Italian to English interpreters available. The team from the second company noticed the train wreck that ensued and decided to speak in their best, most powerful Italian, which was then interpreted into English and then into French, Dutch and Spanish.

 

The difference was most noticeable after the break, just by looking at the number of visitors to the booths rented by each of the two companies. The first team, who used broken English, found themselves alone and bored while their competitors, who realised the power of interpreting, found themselves swamped with interest.

 

If there is a single best advertisement for the ROI of interpreting, it came last year, when I was interpreting for a British technical manufacturer, hoping to woo a French buyer into placing a large order. The entire meeting and the entire contract turned on a misunderstanding of a single word. The only person who realised what was going on and was able explain the problem to speakers of both languages? The interpreter.

 

One interpreter, one troublesome word, one large contract gained by the end of the two days. That was definitely money well spent. Interpreters, if recruited correctly, briefed properly and provided with the right setup will always be worth far more than you will pay them. Their work is the difference between an international meeting that changes the future of your company for the better and one that turns into a frustrating waste of time. Choose wisely.

 

And if you would like someone to help you choose interpreting that will deliver great value for money at your events, drop me an email.

How to be More Successful in 2017

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 6, 2017

Happy New Year!

 

After an exhausting 2016, many business leaders are excited and anxious about what this year may bring. All of us hope to do better this year than last year but, despite all the tips and tricks we might read about online, we might now know how. Here are three strategies I have found to be indispensable.

 

Key 1: Define Your Own Success

 

As both a business owner and a dad, I have no shortage of people offering me their tricks and tips and must-dos. Yet what is glaringly obvious is that most people will give you advice after making the assumption that you want the same things out of life that they do.

 

If I am going to be any more successful this year than I was last year, it will mean being clear about what I mean by “successful”.  More than that, with all of us under continual time pressure, actually knowing what success looks like makes it much easier to say ‘yes’ to the right things and ‘no’ to the wrong things.

 

Since I know the types of clients I want and the kinds of marketing that seem to work for me, I know to ignore anyone selling their latest gimmick. Since I know my priorities, I can also confidently ignore anyone who says that you can’t be a success unless you work 25 hours a day and wake up at 4am, having gone to bed at 5.

 

Key 2: Prioritise Personal Growth

 

In the translation and interpreting community, 2016 was a year where there seemed to be more courses and classes and conferences on offer than ever before. In the events industry too, it seems that people are more aware of the need for Continued Professional Development than ever.

 

The simple reason for this is that every penny invested in a good source of personal and professional growth pays off. I recently read two papers where it was found that the best way to improve sales performance was to set both sales targets and targets for what you wanted to learn.

 

Given how fast technology and business practice is moving, those businesses that sell more will be those where everyone is committed to staying consistently at the top of their game.

 

For event managers, that will mean staying up to date with changes in marketing and shifts in delegate expectations while learning how to integrate new technology. For interpreters, that will mean clocking up the practice hours, diving into specialist subjects and continually honing our approaches to clients.

 

Key 3: Find a Community

 

This last one is by far the most important. Remember how people go on about SMART goals? Well it turns out that the only way they actually have a real effect is when you mix them with regular accountability.

 

In fact, the more research I read, the more important I realise that it is to make sure that you are in a community where you can be supported to grow. No matter how senior you are in your company, you will need someone to listen when times are tough … and a little push when you have started coasting.

 

No-one grows consistently on their own. This year, perhaps the greatest gift you could give your own success would be to find a group of people who are trying to be more successful too.

The Business Clients Call for the Hard Stuff

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: December 9, 2016

What type of interpreter or events manager are you? Do you get the run of the mill, straightforward stuff or are you called in when it is tricky?

There will always be simple work in every field and tons of people to do it. If you locate yourself at the high volume end of the market, there will be lots of opportunities but just as much competition. There both service and rates matter. With the importance of each of those dependent on the client and assignment.

At the tricky end, there is less work but much less competition. Some of your colleagues won’t want to even touch those projects. If you deliver on them, you win yourself not just praise but great respect and more negotiating power.

How many interpreters can confidently deal with live media work? How many event managers can deal with a multilingual, multi-strand, multi-site conference?

The people who get called for the hard stuff will always be in demand. Are you one of them?

By the way, if you are looking for interpreters who can deliver challenging assignments with aplomb, let’s talk.