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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.

 

The problem with receiving interpreting via mobile apps

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 4, 2018

We are all getting used to doing everything online. As a father of three (with one on the way), it is hard to explain just how important online shopping, online flight check-in and online travel booking have become. Yet, for all the leaps we have seen in technology, there are some things that should really stay offline.

Take high-level meetings. For all the deserved concern about the environmental costs of transport, it is still pretty normal to see a businessman from New Zealand fly to mainland Europe to discuss a deal with a company whose representatives might come from different ends of the same country.

Despite Skype and Telegram and Whatsapp, the big, important meetings still take place in person. There’s just something about being in a room together that makes a difference. And there is something about the security of knowing that no-one outside that room can hear what is going on.

For important meetings, privacy and security are a huge concerns. That’s why interpreters sign Non-Disclosure Agreements. That’s why, as a consultant interpreter, I have a public key so I can receive encrypted files. That’s why, for the moment at least, I would recommend that clients keep with the tried-and-tested system of receiving simultaneous interpreting via an infrared (IR) setup and eschew receiving interpreting via mobile phone apps.

This recommendation holds even if every other part of the interpreting process is carried out following best practice.

It’s not that the technology isn’t impressive. It is still amazing that we can and do beam high-quality sound (like podcasts) across continents and can use Wi-Fi networks for sending interpreting and receiving output. But, for meetings where security is a concern, you just can’t beat the advantages of the traditional IR setup. How so?

Unlike Wi-Fi, the traditional setup requires proprietary equipment. It sounds old-school but if the only way to hear the interpreting is with a headset that you get from the sound guy, only people who talk to the sound guy can get a headset. That instantly makes things more secure and, as anyone who has used traditional interpreting equipment will tell you, the signal simply does not leave the room. If you go out of the line of sight of the transmitter, you lose signal. What sounds like a restriction ensures that your meeting is secure.

Since the headsets are dedicated to a single use, they tend to do well at keeping their charge all day. Compare that to any mobile phone, which your delegates will use to listen to the interpreting, check their email, update Facebook and so on, and the difference is clear. For mobile apps to be feasible, the event will need LOTS of mobile phone charging points. Very modern but pretty pricey.

Having delegates receive interpreting through an app also means that you lose control of the security of the feed. Not only is it hard work for the tech to receive, encrypt, broadcast, decrypt and play the signal in real-time (so it is tempting to skip the encryption and decryption parts) but you can’t guarantee what else might be on the mobiles used by your delegates. You simply can’t tell what security risks they are carrying.

The solution might be to  hand out dedicated mobile phones that you have configured. That comes with its own costs means that you will suddenly have lots of internet-enabled devices to maintain, update, fix, and teach delegates to use. That’s before you take account of delegates having special needs that they have setup their own devices to cope with.

As with remote interpreting, the problems with receiving interpreting using the internet are mostly not technical but psychological and behavioural. Even if the tech for receiving interpreting over app was 100% secure, there are too many other variables for it to be an ideal solution for any meeting where security is a concern, at least for the time being.

 

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.

Thou Shalt Not Gloat: What the Tencent Fiasco Means for Interpreters

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 1, 2018

Another day, another company trying to replace human interpreters and failing miserably. As I discussed last week, the Tencent interpreting fiasco means that, for now at least, the jobs of human interpreters are safe … but is that it?

It’s a familiar story. A company tries to develop a machine interpreting system with pretty much zero knowledge of what interpreters actually do, apart from the fact that it has something to do with words. The company tells everyone what wonderful technology they have and launches it in a blaze of glory. And then, on its first true public test, it flops.

The story has been seen repeatedly from at least 2012 and recently, Chinese tech giant, Tencent, followed suit. Another demo, another set of giggling journalists. Will tech companies never learn?

While professional interpreters might be tempted to gloat or laugh, neither response is helpful. The fact is that tech companies will never give up on machine interpreting, the prize is just too great. And for professional interpreters, the implications of that have never been clearer. Read on to examine them.

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Why Social Science and Not Technology will Determine Your Company’s Future

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: December 18, 2017

Another day, another new technology grabbing the limelight. This year alone, we have seen Machine Learning, Neural Networks, Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies each vie for centre stage. And now, with the new fashion for AI specialists predicting when certain jobs will be replaced by robots (and always predicting that they will be last!), it looks as if all we need to do is strap ourselves to technology and let it pull us to a wonderful future. But is tech really all it takes for success?

 

In the face of AI, Machine Learning and the like, it helps to remember the plight of laserdisks, Betamax video recorders, minidiscs and jazz drives. All these represented technological advances. Each represented a step change in thinking and an improvement on the competition. All of them ended up on the junkyard of history, right next to PDAs and the portable CD player.

 

Whatever engineers might say, technology on its own is never enough to bring real change. Pity the poor company with a brand new product, only to see its competitors come out with a cheaper and less reliable version that has the face of a celebrity on the side of it. Few investors will plow cash into a concept that works wonderfully but requires large enterprises to convert wholesale from their existing legacy systems.

 

For technology to make a difference, it must be adopted. For it to be adopted, people must be convinced of its benefits. For people to be convinced, someone in the company selling the product has to have a good grasp of how people think and how they behave in groups.

 

Behold the power of social science. Like fine chocolate, social science comes in many flavours: from the heady delights of statistical demographics to the tempting subtlety of autoethnography. What all of social science shares in common is a commitment to study and understand people.

 

Historically, the biggest war within social science was the split between those who preferred quantitative studies with large data sets and complex statistics and those who preferred qualitative studies, which look more at individual and small group experience. Apart from a few dusty corners, that war is now over and the winner is: both sides. Yes, most social scientists will now tell you that, if you want to understand people you need both the big statistical data and the small group/individual perspective.

 

There is a lesson there for technology geeks, especially those fascinated by the power of Big Data. Statistics and data are powerful but personal experience and subjective ideas matter too. If your business is going to thrive, you will have to do more than harness big data; you will need to know how to persuade, encourage, serve and delight people.

 

It’s no wonder then that the highest converting marketing media are still face-to-face contact and word-of-mouth recommendations. Even with the rise of social media, we humans still love to look people in the eyes and spend time with them before we hand over our hard-earned cash. An in-person recommendation from a trusted friend will always carry more weight than a targeted Facebook advert.

 

The reality is that few new technological products live up to the utopian marketing created by their inventors. Those translation earbuds that function perfectly on that YouTube video will struggle in a crowded bar or when you can no longer be bothered to speak in a mechanical monotone and there are no producers around to ensure everyone behaves predictably. That shiny new tablet will run at breakneck speed … until you actually load your favourite apps onto it.

 

Technology is wonderful and, if used well, it can make real contributions to productivity and profit margins. But for those gains to be realised, you need social skills like leadership, trustworthiness and persuasion. For your business to succeed, you will need a social scientist’s head for understanding people and their predilections much more than you will need an engineer’s eye for a new piece of kit that could possibly be created.

 

By all means enjoy technology but put knowing and serving people first and you won’t go far wrong.

 

 

 

Why I Only Offer On-site Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 12, 2017

It is a trend that is both incredibly promising and incredibly controversial. Remote interpreting, where the interpreter can be located absolutely anywhere and yet still interpret for your event via a phone call or online platform, has become big business and is set to grow even more. So why would any consultant interpreter not jump at the opportunities it offers?

 

Don’t get me wrong. I can see the benefits of remote interpreting. With the growth in virtual meetings and the never-ending need for interpreters in dangerous situations, remote interpreting will enable business and save lives. I really do welcome its growth. But it also represents a trend that I have strategically chosen not to follow.

 

In modern, high-tech remote interpreting, interpreting is sold as a service that clients can dial into any time, with no particular commitment. That is great for some clients who might only ever need an interpreter for one conversation or who might want a bit of linguistic assistance here and there. It is not so good for those of us who are pushing for interpreting to be seen as a partnership.

 

In my own research and practice, I have seen how powerful it can be when speakers, interpreters, audience members and event organisers work together closely. While instant, remote interpreting is good, I have seen even better, longer-lasting results from being in the room, reading the situation closely and understanding the needs, wants and motivations of all those involved – the kind of involvement that is impossible when you aren’t physically there.

 

While in the past, having interpreting at a meeting was a marker of prestige, we are now fast arriving at a fundamental division in the profession. On one side, there will be interpreting as a service: slotting in seamlessly where needed and available at a touch of a button without any commitment. On the other side, there will be interpreting as partnership: delivering not just accurate interpreting but interpreting that is keyed to each particular context, audience and goal. In the former, interpreting will be incidental, there because of a transient need. In the latter, interpreting will be there not just because of a need but to provide real, lasting, ongoing value.

 

I have decided that the core purpose of my business is to be the person clients can trust to bring together teams of experts who are as committed to the success of their events as they are. From where I sit, that simply isn’t possible with any kind of interpreting delivery platform, with their automated sorting and emphasis on speedy choice.

 

I sincerely wish the developers of remote interpreting every success but I won’t be joining them.

 

If your business could do with someone to build you an interpreting dream team that you can work with again and again, it’s time we talked. Drop me an email for a free, no obligation chat.