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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.

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.

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.

Translator or interpreter: Which One Does your Event Need?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 2, 2016

You know your next international event is going to be an extravaganza. You know there will be delegates from several countries at the event, all wanting to hear the proceedings in their language. They might even want the event guide in their language too. So, do you need to hire conference interpreters or translators and what difference does it make anyway?

 

Here is your simple guide.

 

If you need people to hear the conference speeches or product presentations in their language or if there are deaf people who will need to see what is going on in a Sign Language, you need interpreters.

 

If there are signs, guides, websites, or paperwork that needs to be available in other languages, you need translators.

 

It’s that simple, really.

 

After that, if you need interpreters, you have decisions to make. For big events and conference, with interpreting into more than one language, you really can’t do without professional simultaneous interpreting equipment. This means soundproof booths, headsets, mics, etc. A good interpreting equipment supplier will know exactly what you need and will be able to integrate cleanly with whatever audiovisual setup is already there.

 

For small events, or when there are only two or three delegates there who need interpreting into a single language, you might be able to use whispered interpreting. However, the problem with this is that it inevitably causes some disruption to the people nearby and, due to the inevitable restriction in the volume the interpreters can use, it is not likely to be as immersive as simultaneous interpreting.

 

For some events, like after dinner talks or events where interpreting is needed into a single language and you want to showcase it, you can use different forms of consecutive interpreting. Some speaker, for example, find that working with an interpreter next to them on the stage gives another dynamic to their performance. Other times, it makes more sense for the speaker to deliver the entire speech and then for the interpreter to give an interpreted version,

 

Whatever the event, a good consultant interpreter or experienced interpreting agency will be able to recommend the best setup to achieve your aims. And, with more and more interpreters and interpreting agencies having solid contacts in the translation industry, they might be able to recommend translators too, so that all your communications with your delegates are smooth and effective.

Making Academia Accessible

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 6, 2011

Ask a hundred translators what would improve their work or make it easier and I am sure that very few would suggest that “better access to the latest translation research” might do the trick. Yet, there is a growing body of work that could do just that.

Work on the use of corpora (think translation memories and parallel texts) is improving our understanding on how translators can and do use existing texts to improve their work. Work on expertise is teaching us more on how translators and interpreters can improve their skills. Work on ethics is helping us to gradually look for routes through the minefield of translation and interpreting decisions. Work on client expectations is giving us new insight into what clients want and how that relates to the brief they give you and the job you take on. The list goes on.

On the other hand, it’s not as if those outside the ivory tower are failing to think carefully about their work either. Debates rage about the effects of globalisation, technology and marketing strategies on our work. Professional journals and magazines show that there is a growing interest in understanding our work above and beyond the level of typing a sentence into a TM and hitting enter.

As has been mentioned elsewhere, the problem doesn’t actually seem to be that there isn’t academic work out there that might be of interest to translators and interpreters but that it is not always accessible to them. How many of those who chip away at the wordface each day would ever consider subscribing to an academic journal? How many academics purposefully ensure that they present at least some of their work to practising professionals?

If the ivory tower is going to affect the wordface (and what good is research if noone ever uses it?) then perhaps some subtle shifts are needed. On a purely pragmatic level, the world of academia and the professional world need to learn to speak the same language. Outside of a few journals, noone calls their clients “commissioners.” Similarly, I have yet to read an academic paper on payment practices.

For academics, the challenge then is to “sell” their work to the profession in a way that aligns nicely with professionals’ everyday concerns. For freelancers and agencies, there is the arguably tougher challenge of making some kind of headway into existing research to ensure that all their hard work isn’t simply a reinvention of the wheel. Believe it or not, many of the issues the freelancers face, from status to ethics to CPD, have already been the subject of academic enquiry. It will surely pay to find out what has been achieved so far.

There are, of course, a growing number of academics who continue to translate and interpret – a position which leaves them ideally placed to build bridges between the two worlds. With one foot in either camp, these “practisearchers” (to borrow a term from Daniel Gile) can and do serve as mediators, or even interpreters. They instinctively know both “languages” and understand the concerns of both worlds.

Perhaps then the ivory tower isn’t a tower at all. Research isn’t and needn’t be entirely separate from the cut and thrust of professional life. Now, if only everyone understood that…

The Solution to Price Pressure

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 2, 2011

It doesn’t take a long time around translators for the conversation to move to pricing. Just about everyone is conscious, or even worried, about what they see as the continual pressure to reduce their rates and accept poor conditions. According to some, this has only been exacerbated by the growth in popularity of translation portals that allow the assignment of work to become a bidding war, with the spoils going to the lowest bid.

While it can be enjoyable to complain and blame it doesn’t really do anything constructive. We can grump all we like about reverse bidding, we can protest and write and even sing if we like, but those sites will not go away; neither will those who use them.

So what is the solution? For me it is incredibly simple: just say “no.” If a client asks you to work for less than you are comfortable with, say “no.” If a project proposal seems to lean towards getting the most work for the least money, say “no.”

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realise that the rates issue is not really about online portals at all. It’s actually all about the decisions translators make. We can complain about cheap providers and unrealistic clients all we like but if we choose not to work with them, it doesn’t really matter anyway. There is no way that we will ever prevent people offering and getting translators for ridiculous rates; what we can do is ensure that we don’t work for those rates.

For as long as translators will accept silly rates, there will be clients who will try to get them. On the other hand, there are still plenty of clients who realise that when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. It is those clients we need to care about and it is that market that we need to be concentrating our attention on. After all, who is worth more to us, the client offering rock-bottom rates or those who actually care about the quality of the work they get?

Let the low payers find low chargers. Just make sure you are not one of them.

Hold That Thought! The Thoughtful Translator Part III

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 19, 2011

If you have been reading this blog over the past two weeks, you will know that I have been going on about the importance of learning from our work by thinking about it. The question I haven’t yet answered is how. The answer is simple: to make sure our thinking leads to learning we need to write it down when we apply it.

Most translators will be somewhat familiar with writing down what they have learned. Many of us keep glossaries, long lists of words, phrases and their set translations, based on hours of research for previous jobs. CAT and TM tools can help us reuse our previous work in a slightly different way by spotting where phrases or parts of them have come up before meaning that, in theory anyway, we should never translate the same thing twice.

How many people actually think about how and where they found this information in the first place? For instance, say you found a great way of translating the French concept “Master 2.” You could then add it to your glossary and use it in a translation. However, what if, a few weeks later, you were looking for a translation of “DESS”? If you hadn’t bothered to note down how you discovered the translation of “Master 2” you could find yourself having to run through the whole search process again, only to find that the translations of both terms were on the exact same page.

This could get even more frustrating. If one day you are translating a manual and manage to find a manual for an earlier version of the same piece of equipment, you will find your life a whole lot easier. If you don’t write down where you found it and/or you don’t save your translation, you might find yourself having to repeat the process all over again. This is obviously not the best use of your time.

Simply put, the more we can remember about how we did things, how we found information and why we did things that way, the more time we save in the future. An unexpected benefit might also be that we will be able to look back on our previous thoughts and approaches and learn how to speed up the work.

Aside from adding notes into glossaries, keeping copies of your translations and adding sites to your bookmarks or favourites, it might also be useful to keep a diary. Even something as simple as “Today I found resource X by searching for Y in search engine Z” could be enough to start us off. As we move on, we might want to record things like “Client ABC really seems to like it when I do D but wants me to revise the style of section E.” A few entries like this and we will not only spot patterns of preferences for each client but we might, just might, begin to learn our own strengths and weaknesses.

Once we know our own strengths and weaknesses, we are already half way there. Organisations like ITI offer lots of targeted training for translators and we will spend our money much more wisely if we know exactly what training we need and when. Add this in to the idea of the personal development plan I suggested hereand you have two excellent tools. Go on, try them, and send me a comment with your results!

The Thoughtful Translator, Part II

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 12, 2011

Last week, I posted a bit about my journey as a thoughtful translator. Much of the same happened to my interpreting work. This week, I want to look at another aspect of this idea, one that most professional translators may not be aware of.

According to some Iranian researchers, it turns out that all that translation theory stuff might be more useful than we think. In an ongoing project, one translation teacher is experimenting with the effect of different translation theories on students’ translation quality. She teaches one group one set of translation theories called ‘functional theories’ (basically the ones covered in this blog) and another group a different set, called ‘cultural theories’. So far, it seems that the group taught the ‘functional theories’ are producing work that is of better quality than the group taught the ‘cultural theories.’

The difference isn’t enough yet for any final conclusions to be drawn but there is enough evidence for us to start thinking through the basic idea. What if it doesn’t just make a difference that you think about translation but also how you think about it?

Let’s take a rather silly analogy. Imagine three people painting a fence. One of them doesn’t think about his technique and just splatters paint everywhere. ‘I don’t care how I do it, I just want it done’ he says. So, on goes the paint and the fence gets done. So does half the garden and his dog and three quarters of the washing that is hanging up and his wife, who was all dressed up for a party.

The second guy decides that he will think about paint. So, he gets a book from the library about paint, reads up on the contents, learns inorganic chemistry so he understands the reactions going on as it dries and, after five years at Oxford, paints his fence with organic, chemically stable hand mixed pigment and a sable brush. It has taken him the best part of a decade, cost him a six figure sum but the fence, she is complete.

The third guy decides he wants to take a different approach. He wants to think about painting rather than paint. So, he finds a skilled painter and gets lessons in how to paint. He finds out how to get the best equipment and looks into the best way to paint the specific kind of wood his fence is made of. Armed with that knowledge, he sets to work and paints the fence.

Which one would you say had the best approach to painting his fence? What does this mean for you? Which approach do you think that you will tend towards?

Applying this idea to translation and interpreting is fairly simple. We simply need to spend time thinking about what we are translating, how we will translate it and the best way to improve our practical skills. How we might manage that, is the subject of next week’s post.

The Thoughtful Translator Part I

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 5, 2011

How do you become a better translator? Is practice enough in itself? If it is, why is it that some translators with ten years of practice are still at the same level as some new university graduates? Is it all down to talent? In this three part series, I intend to look at one way that experience can be turned into improvement. And it all starts with a single question.

Yesterday, I was asked to take part in a survey of people’s views on the Nida School, a translation and interpreting summer school, which took place last summer. One of the questions asked whether the summer school had improved my skills. For most people, the answer would have been an obvious “no.” There were no translation workshops, no interpreting teaching and no displays of new translation tools. The vast majority of presentations were on translation theory rather than individual translations. Nevertheless, I answered with a strong “yes.” How on earth could ten days of semiotics, cognitive science, literary studies and Bible translation theory have altered my translation practice?

My answer is simple: those ten days allowed me to become more thoughtful and this thoughtfulness has impacted my work. The idea goes like this: the more I am able to think about my own work, the more I am able to see new approaches to translation problems. The more I am able to think about translation problems, the more patterns I can see and the more I can find even better approaches to solving them. The more effective I get at solving problems, the better I work.

Here is a very simple example. At the Nida School, there was a lot of discussion about what translators are actually doing when they translate. Are translators simply handling the words on the page or are they thinking about how the document will be used? Do they only care about what their clients will say or are they thinking about how their translation fits into society as a representative of a certain kind of text and even a symbol of a certain ideology?

Everyone will have different answers to those questions. For me the main point was to be able to reflect on a) why I translate b) the purpose of translating this particular document I am working on and c) the standards expected of this work. Starting from this angle, I can see my work in a wider perspective, which helps me to move away from simply seeing it as a collection of French words that have to be turned into a collection of English words by 3pm Wednesday morning.

Once I am thinking about the purpose of this translation, I can start to think about what type of text it is, what people expect of that type of text in the UK, the kinds of translations, styles and documents the client has already used and who is going to read this thing. Some of this I have already covered in other posts but here my emphasis is on how I arrived at this point.

What is even more exciting is that being able to translate thoughtfully puts me in a strong position to find solutions to problems than I haven’t even discovered yet. If I get into the habit of actually thinking about my work, then the chances are that I can see problems before my clients do, avoiding embarrassing mistakes and keeping quality high. So, the question remains: how much thought are you putting into your work?