Why Interpreters Should Forget About Quality (and concentrate on value)

by Jonathan Downie

How can we define “quality” in interpreting? What does it mean to be a “good interpreter”? Before I answer that, let me tell you a little story.

I was doing chuchotage interpreting at a wood industry conference. The first plenary talk was given by an economist. This particular economist crammed as many charts as he could on each slide. Added to this was his love of long, complex numbers. Numbers are hard enough when we are in nice booths and have the chance to take notes in advance. When you are doing chuchotage and you have no advance warning, they are practically impossible.

Faced with this task, I decided to concentrate on giving a version that would be useful to the French delegates, even if that meant dropping a few (or more than a few) numbers in the process. I had realised that the purpose of the entire conference was to help people see the economic context they had been in and prepare for the one they were going into. So that’s what I aimed to do in my interpreting.

Now, interpreters have almost universally defined “good interpreting” or “quality” in interpreting as being all about interpreting everything the speaker says, getting terminology perfect, and staying totally neutral. So, following that logic, what I did at that wood conference would count as bad interpreting.

Yet, from the point of view of the people who actually needed my services I did a great job. Actually, the head of the French delegation leaned behind me, while I was working, and said to his colleague “il est bon, cet interprète, n’est-ce pas?” [This interpreter’s good, isn’t he!]

We can now be pretty sure that the reason for such differences in quality judgments is that clients use different criteria from interpreters when judging quality. In fact, even when interpreters and clients seem to be using the same criteria (such as accuracy), it turns out that they are likely to be using completely different definitions.

Now, we could stop at this point, argue that clients are clueless and go on doing what we are already doing. There are two problems with that. The first is that it happens to be clients who are paying our invoices so it is bad manners to call them clueless! The second problem is that, as soon as we assume that we have things right already, we stop learning.

A more useful explanation of the difference between how clients see interpreting and how we see it is that we often talk about “quality” in interpreting in a way that separates it from any context. We describe it in terms of reducing errors, creating standards and maximising productivity. In short, the way we often talk about quality treats interpreting as if it were a product and not a service.

Clients necessarily view interpreting in terms of the contexts in which they receive it and in terms of what they want to achieve in that context. Instead of neutral, depersonalised “quality”, they view interpreting in terms of the value it adds to them. In short, for them, it is a service and not a product.

That knowledge is vital if we are ever going to improve the status of interpreting and stop the relentless drive towards cost-cutting in some circles. For as long as we talk about interpreting as if it were a product that can be described in terms of “quality”, we are actually encouraging clients to look for ways to cut costs and reduce how much they pay for it. If we start talking about interpreting in terms of the value it adds, then we will have a much better platform from which to argue that interpreting is worth investing in. It’s our choice.

Why we all need double vision

by Jonathan Downie

Why would an interpreter who was beginning to get valuable clients spend his non-working time reading research papers? Why would a translator who was learning to network start applying for conferences on Translation Studies rather than for a nice CAT tool presentation?

Those are good questions. In fact, they are questions I asked myself for a while. You see, for most translators and interpreters, the word “research” makes them think about termbanks and parallel texts rather than participant observation and statistical analysis. Research for them is all about getting the next job right and maybe, if you find the time, keeping an eye on the markets you work in.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of research. To translate and interpret well, you need to be a good researcher, or more correctly a good “information finder.” You can often get away with thinking no further than your next job.

This begins to explain why I started swapping translation work for interpreting research and writing, alongside my interpreting work. What I found myself wanting, especially on those days between jobs when I had done lots of marketing and still no clients were biting, was a longer range perspective. Surely there had to be something more than simply finding information and applying it to the current job.

Now, truth be told, I am not much of a philosopher. I have never been attracted to questions like “what are we doing when we translate?” or “how can we define equivalence?” On the other hand, I am interested in how we can learn and become more effective, how we can better understand our clients’ needs and how we can improve the status of translators and interpreters. Answering that kind of question leads very quickly to finding ways of giving practical help to translators and interpreters.

Believe it or not, I actually believe that translators and interpreters can help themselves. They already have a better understanding of the questions I posed than most researchers. If your livelihood depends on it, you had better get very good at determining what your clients want! If you want to increase your earning power, you had better get a good understanding of how you could improve.

What’s missing is what researchers call “generalizability.” Learning techniques that work for you might be pretty useless for someone else. Your clients probably communicate in a very different way than mine. What we all need then is a kind of double vision. We need to be able to focus intently on the job we are doing now while still taking an interest in wider issues.

Take the infamous debate over court and police interpreter conditions in the UK. During one government enquiry, one interpreter representative made the claim that members of their association had watched court proceedings under the new contract and had noticed that the quality had dropped massively. A good researcher would instantly want to ask what they meant by “quality” and how they could tell it had dropped. A very good researcher would want to know whether all the interpreters watching the same case found the quality to be the same.

That little piece of evidence could have been much more telling if the person concerned had been able to say something like “we assessed interpreting at 10 courts and found that, on average, interpreters under the new contract omitted 50% more information than those who were working under a different contract.” The added precision is the kind of thing that can be gained when we have the double vision I was talking about.

The truth is, if any long-term improvements are going to happen in any area of translation and interpreting, it will take a combination of hard campaigning and strong data. It will take people who are excellent at the work they are doing now and yet are far sighted enough to think about the bigger questions behind their work. Those bigger questions are why I became a researcher and an interpreter and they are we why all need double vision.