Keep Changing the Public Face of Languages

If some of today’s post seems familiar, it should be! Given the continuing saga of UK court interpreting, dropping numbers of students doing languages and the rise and rise of machine translation apps, it is just as important to shape people’s perceptions of languages as it was just over a year ago when Changing the Public Face of Languages was first published. In this post, we will review a few of the paragraphs from that post and see how we are getting on.

“It seems to me that when languages get into the press, it is for one of two reasons. The first is money. When language services seem to cost a lot of money or linguists are asking for money for some project or department, journalists start writing. Within a few sentences the story comes to the crux: in this time of belt-tightening, why should languages not experience the same funding cuts as everyone else? What makes languages so useful, so interesting and so important that they need the same funding they already get, if not more?

The other stories centre on even simpler concerns: language differences are funny. It seems funny to think that English-speakers might struggle with Glaswegian, which is, of course, a dialect of English. It’s funny to gawk at translation errors. It’s funny to talk about a recent cultural faux pas.

Is this really the impression people will have of languages: expensive but funny?”

Sadly, not much has changed on either count. The press impression of languages is still dominated by the same hackneyed arguments that have been brought up since time immemorial. However, what might be shifting is the view that speaking more than one language is not really a skill.

When “Changing the Public Face of Languages” was first written, there was very little indication that the public really valued languages and linguists. Now, with public discussion of the Ministry of Justice interpreting contract, clear representation of the views of interpreters and precious favourable headlines, we might be making headway.

At last, people seem to be realising that cutting interpreter pay and conditions is not a quick route to greater efficiency. Slowly, the people who work with interpreters are beginning to ask why such a vital service has been so attacked. The word “value” is not entering into the debate.

All this is a lesson for language professionals. If we want to increase the number of language learners and if we want to increase the status of the language professions, we need to start talking about the value that we add. We need to show that we actually add something to society that all can benefit from. In the end, it all comes down to exactly the same argument that ended that post over a year ago.

“If a company wants to crack a new market, they need linguists to build bridges to their new customers. If a government wants to increase the integration of new arrivals, it will need linguists to build bridges to its new residents. In short, if any two groups of people who do not share a common language wish to communicate, they will need linguists.

Put in those terms, it is far easier to justify the money spent on language research, training and, yes, even translation and interpreting. Rather than money down a very expensive drain, the same cash becomes investment in community cohesion and economic growth. In these troubled times, isn’t that what everyone is after anyway?”

A Year and a Bit of Blogging About Research

On 1st October this year, LifeinLINCS celebrated a year since its launch. Since then we have covered a whole range of topics from subtitling to court interpreting and from getting a career in translation and interpreting to minority language rights and why people would put careers on hold to go and do research.

It has to be said that the reception has been superb. People from more than 110 countries have checked out the blog. Since the end of February this year, more than 12,000 different people have read at least one post. More than that, almost 100 comments have been left since the blog began, which means that our number of comments far outstrips the number of times we have posted!

And what have you been saying? Well, it seems that odd client behaviour isn’t actually as odd as it might seem. The UK government’s arrangements for court interpreting still inspire anger and it is impossible to over-exaggerate the personality quirks of language professionals.

All of this from a blog that struggled to gain 10 visits a day in its first week. If you had asked the experts then if a blog about research aimed at practising professionals would survive, the answer would have been hidden in fits of laughter. Nowadays, one of our editors gets a bit disappointed if we get less than 100 visits per day and it is not unknown for days to hit ten or even twenty times that!

If nothing else, the past year and a bit has shown that professional practice and rigorous belong together. It has also shown that when this research and the thinking that goes alongside it are presented in an easily accessible way, people will not only read it but will start to talk about it.

So, maybe translation and interpreting isn’t in such bad shape after all!

There is more to come from LifeinLINCS as we seek to broaden the range of language research from Heriot-Watt that we cover, as well as commenting on language stories in the news and, of course, attempting to be funny from time to time. Lookout for next week’s post on what modelling clay can tell us about our clients.

Author: Jonathan Downie

The Interpreters of the Future

… will either be mobile aps or underpaid, under qualified temps. That’s the impression people could easily get from the last month’s worth of news headlines. We already covered the attempt by NTT Docomo to create an interpreting ap and now, wonder of wonders, Microsoft are at it too. Sure, the results are “comical” in places and it just about scrapes by in two languages if it understands your accent but the idea is sound, isn’t it?

And then there is the on-going saga of court and police interpreting in the UK. So far, a government report and two enquiries into the new single-provider contract are uncovering uncomfortable truths such as:
•    The procurement procedure was not up to scratch
•    Advice was ignored or fudged
•    Rates were set without consulting interpreters
•    Not all interpreters working under the agreement were qualified or properly vetted

The end result is that the vast majority of interpreters who are qualified and checked are refusing to work under the new contract and many courts are having to revert back to the old system if they actually want someone reliable and useful. Whoops!

The problem is that the financial logic behind the original move seemed sound enough, at least to those who made the decision. After all, if companies can save money by outsourcing entire functions to a single supplier, so can government department’s right? And, interpreting is just a service like any other right? Surely any good bilingual can interpret, right?

The fault in this logic stems from exactly the issue that this blog covered in the second ever post, over a year ago. The public face of languages and of the language industry needs to be changed. As long as people see interpreting as a financial cost item instead of a worthy investment, spending patterns won’t change. For as long as people associate interpreters with people they don’t want in their country, justifying pay rises (or even pay stability) will be difficult.

The point is that most, if not all, interpreters know the real potential of their work. Not only does interpreting help justice to be served, it helps people to get medical attention, families to cope with trauma, business to conquer new markets and economies to grow. As soon as you trade anything, be it people, products or ideas, outside of the market that speaks your language you need interpreters (and translators).

If the future of interpreting is to be filled with qualified, vetted, reliable professionals, someone will need to make sure that the message gets out that this future and only this future is the one we should be chasing. Someone has to convince government ministers, business people, and the public that interpreting is worth more than it costs. Anyone up for that?