The invisible conduit of interpreting

Jonathan Downie made an interesting comment on his twitter this morning.

Interpreting will never be respected as a profession while its practitioners cling to the idea that they are invisible conduits.

Several things occurred to me about this and in no particular order, I’m going to dump them out here (and then write in a little more detail how I feel about respect/interpreting)

  1. Some time ago I read a piece on the language industry and how much money it generated. The more I read it, the more I realised that there was little to no money in providing language skills; the money concentrated itself in brokering those skills. In agencies who buy and sell services rather than people who actually carry out the tasks. This is not unusual. Ask the average pop musician how much money they make out of their activities and then check with their record company.
  2. As particular activities become more heavily populated with women, the salary potential for those activities drops.
  3. Computers and technology.

Even if you dealt with 1 and 2 – and I am not sure how you would, one of the biggest problems that people providing language services now have is the existence of free online translation services and, for the purposes of interpreters, coupled with the ongoing confusion between translation and interpreting, the existence Google Translate and MS’s Skype Translate will continue to undermine the profession.

However, the problem is much wider than that. There are elements of the technology sector who want lots of money for technology, but want the content that makes that technology salable for free. Wikipedia is generated by volunteers. Facebook runs automated translation and requests correction from users. Duolingo’s content is generated by volunteers and their product is not language learning, it is their language learning platform. In return, they expect translation to be carried out.

All of this devalues the human element in providing language skills. The technology sector is expecting it for free, and it is getting it for free, probably from people who should not be doing it either. This has an interesting impact on the ability of professionals to charge for work. This is not a new story. Automated mass production processes did it to the craft sector too. What generally happens is we reach a zone where “good enough” is a moveable feast, and it generally moves downwards. This is a cultural feature of the technology sector:

The technology sector has a concept called “minimum viable product”. This should tell you all you need to know about what the technology sector considers as success.

But – and there is always a but – the problem is not what machine translation can achieve – but what people think it achieves. I have school teacher friends who are worn out from telling their students that running their essays through Google Translate is not going to provide them with a viable essay. Why pay for humans to do work which costs a lot of money when we can a) get it for free or b) a lot less from via machine translation.

This is the atmosphere in which interpreters, and translators, and foreign language teachers, are trying to ply their profession. It is undervalued because a lower quality product which supplies “enough” for most people is freely and easily available. And most people are not qualified to assess quality in terms of content, so they assess on price. At this point, I want to mention Dunning-Kruger because it affects a lot of things. When MH370 went missing, people who work in aviation comms technology tried in vain to explain that just because you had a GPS on your phone, didn’t mean that MH370 should be locatable in a place which didn’t have any cell towers. Call it a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Most people are not aware of how limited their knowledge is. This is nothing new. English as She is Spoke is a classic example dating from the 19th century.

I know well who I have to make.

My general experience, however, is that people monumentally over estimate their foreign language skills and you don’t have to be trying to flog an English language phrasebook in Portugal in the late 19th century to find them…

All that aside, though, interpreting services, and those of most professions, have a serious, serious image problem. They are an innate upfront cost. Somewhere on the web, there is advice for people in the technology sector which points out, absolutely correctly, that information technology is generally seen as a cost, and that if you are working in an area perceived to be a cost to the business, your career prospects are less obvious than those who work in an area perceived to be a revenue generating section of the business. This might explain why marketing is paid more than support, for example.

Interpreting and translation are generally perceived as a cost. It’s hard to respect people whose services you resent paying for and this, for example, probably explains the grief with court interpreting services in the UK, why teachers and health sector salaries are being stamped on while MPs are getting attractive salary improvements. I could go on but those are useful public examples.

For years, interpreting has leaned on an image of discretion, a silent service which is most successful if it is invisible. I suspect that for years, that worked because of the nature of people who typically used interpreting services. The world changes, however. I am not sure what the answer is although as an industry, interpreting needs to focus on the value add it brings and why the upfront cost of interpreting is less than the overall cost of pretending the service is not necessary.

Visual Studio Code

It might be possible to have too many code editors; I have a good few anyway. But MS have launched a new one, which is cross platform (Win, Mac and Linux) and which, on first sight looks quite interesting. It is currently in Preview version.

It reminds me vaguely of Brackets; still not sure whether it will replace Sublime or Notepad++ in my heart. I like some of its navigation features though.

Future work

Via twitter yesterday, I was pointed to this piece on one of the WSJ’s blogs. Basically it looks at the likelihood that given job type might or might not be replaced by some automated function. Interestingly, the WSJ suggested that the safest job might be amongst the interpreter/translation industry. I found that interesting for a number of reasons so I dug a little more. The paper that blogpost is based on is this one, from Nesta.

I had a few problems with it so I also looked back at this paper which is earlier work by two of the authors involved in the Nesta paper.  Two of the authors are based at the Oxford Martin institute; the third author of the Nesta paper is linked with the charity Nesta itself.

So much for the background. Now for my views on the subject.

I’m not especially impressed with the underlying work here: there’s a lot of subjectivity in terms of how the underlying data was generated and in terms of how the training set for classification was set up. I’m not totally surprised that you would come to the conclusion that the more creative work types are more likely to be immune to automation for the simple reason that there are gaps in terms of artificial intelligence on a lot of fronts. But I was surprised that the outcome focused on translation and interpreting.

I’m a trained interpreter and a trained translator. I also have postgraduate qualifications in the area of machine learning with some focus on unsupervised systems. You could argue I have a foot in both camps. Translation has been a target of automated systems for years and years. Whether we are there yet or not depends on how much you think you can rely on Google Translate. In some respects, there is some acknowledgement in the tech sector that you can’t (hence Wikipedia hasn’t been translated using it) and in other respects, that you can (half the world seems to think it is hilariously adequate; I think most of them are native English speakers). MS are having a go at interpreting now with Skype. As my Spanish isn’t really up to scratch I’m not absolutely sure that I’m qualified to evaluate how successful they are. But if it’s anything like machine translation of text, probably not adequately. Without monumental steps forward in natural language processing – in lots of languages – I do not think you can arrive at a situation where computers are better at translating texts than humans and in fact, even now, to learn, machine translation systems are desperately dependent on human translated texts.

The interesting point about the link above is that while I might agree with the conclusions of the paper, I remain unconvinced by some of the processes that delivered them to those conclusions. To some extent, you could argue that the processes that get automated are the ones that a) cost a lot of people a lot money and b) are used often enough to be worth automating. It is arguable that for most of industry, translation and interpreting is less commonly required. Many organisations just get around the problem by having an in house working language, for example, and most organisations outsource any unusual requirements.

The other issue is that around translation, there has been significant naiveté – and I believe there continues to be – in terms how easy it is to solve this problem automatically. Right now we have a data focus and use statistical translation methods to focus on what is more likely to be right. But the extent to which we can depend on that tend to be available data and that varies in terms of quantity and quality with respect to language pairs. Without solving the translation problem, I am not sure we can really solve the interpreting problem either given issues around accent and voice recognition. For me, there are core issues around how we enable language for computers and I’ve come to the conclusion that we underestimate the non-verbal features of language such that context and cultural background is lost for a computer which has not acquired language via interactive experience (btw, I have a script somewhere to see about identifying the blockages in terms of learning a language). Language is not just 100,000 words and a few grammar rules.

So, back to the question of future work. Technology has always driven changes in employment practices and it is fair to say that the automation of boring repetitive tasks might generally be seen as good as it frees people up to higher level tasks, when that’s what it does. The papers above have pointed out that this is not always the case; that automation occasionally generates more low level work (see for example mass manufacture versus craft working).

The thing is, there is a heavy, heavy focus on suggesting that jobs disappearing through automation of vaguely creative tasks (tasks that involve a certain amount more decision making for example) might be replaced with jobs that serve the automation processes. I do not know if this will happen. Certainly, there has been a significant increase in the number of technological jobs, but many of those jobs are basically irrelevant. The world would not come to a stop in the morning if Uber shut down, for example, and a lot of the higher profile tech start ups tend to be targeting making money or getting sold rather than solving problems. If you look at the tech sector as well, it’s very fluffy for want of a better description. Outside jobs like programming, and management, and architecture (to some extent), there are few recognisable dream jobs. I doubt any ten year old would answer “business analyst” to the question “What do you want to do when you grow up”.

Right now, we see an excessive interest in disruption. Technology disrupts. I just think it tends to do so in ignorance. Microsoft, for example, admit that it’s not necessary to speak more than one language to work on machine interpreting for Skype. And at one point, I came across an article regarding Duolingo where they had very few language/pedagogy staff particularly in comparison to the number of software engineers and programmers, but the target for their product was to a) distribute translation as a task to be done freely by people in return for free language lessons and b) provide said free language lessons. The content for the language lessons is generally driven by volunteers.

So the point I am driving at is that creative tasks, which feature content creation, for example carrying out translation tasks, or providing appropriate learning tools, these are not valued by the technology industry. What point is there training to be an interpreter or translator if technology distributes the tasks in such a way as people will do it for free? We can see the same thing happening with journalism. No one really wants to pay for it.

And at the end of the day, a job which doesn’t pay is a job you can’t live on.

People don’t fear change that enhances their lives

I have spent a lot of the last 24 hours reading discussions on the subject of Ubuntu and Unity in particular. I had (and have again) Linux Mint install but following issues linked to the screen lock with processes running in a Python window, I temporarily switched over to Ubuntu.

In the time that it was installed, I discovered user interface design decisions which appeared to be made with no consideration of users, and it crashed a couple of times. It’s gone and I have gone back to Mint, reconfigured screen savers (ie, switched them and screen sleep completely off) and the issues which I had previously do not appear to have (yet) remanifested themselves.

But Ubuntu…Someone in Canonical thought it was a good idea to a) remove the application menu from the application window and b) put it on the global menu at the top of the screen and c) hide it.

The first time this charade manifested itself was with Sublime Text – my text editor of choice for most serious work – and I could not find the menu. It’s one thing to take it away from the application window – unwise in my view but not unknown and probably tolerable. Hiding it was not.

I know that Canonical have done something about this with 14.04 which released very recently. But this fiasco has been reality for a few years now and a lot of people screamed blue murder about it. It may be a small and cosmetic thing but it interferes with usability. It may seem overdramatic but it is the one single feature of Ubuntu that made me decide that the desktop environment was unusable for me. Its key outcome was to make software I wanted to use and was reasonably familiar with much, much harder to use. The fact that it took nearly 3 years for some sort of a fix isn’t really that edifying to be honest and few people are going to put the very newest version of a piece of software on when a) they know it’s about a week or two in release and b) they need some form of stability.

I’m aware that Ubuntu’s response to criticisms of Unity has been to recommend other distros. When I come to Ubuntu as a new user, that doesn’t really make me feel that Ubuntu is particularly interested in dialogue with your users. No matter how free your stuff is, no one is going to want to use it if they think they are being stomped on.

The other thing which someone decided was that no one really needed any sort of a reasonable hierarchical application menu. Up front, if you wanted to get at your applications, you had to search for them either through the general lens or the application lens. There are some benefits to being able to do a search like this. However, there are wholesale user disadvantages to not having a reasonable hierarchical and catogorisable view of your software as well. For all the world’s complaints about it, even Windows 8’s Metro UI allows you the option of arranging your applications in a logical set of groups. Linux Mint gives you a menu.

Ubuntu gives you a search field. That’s fine for documents and for email in my gmail account. It is utterly frustrating for managing applications and more specifically, launchers for your applications.

There is only so much real estate in the not-movable launcher on the left handside, and anyway, the first thing you have to do on installing Ubuntu is to get rid of the – I was going to say junk – but shall we say “stuff you don’t need” before you can do anything. The default install size of the launcher is too big (but at least that can be customised) and it comes with a lot of Libre Office stuff and a direct link to Amazon.

I remember when Windows machines used to come preloaded with all sorts of commercial launchers on the desktop. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. And yes, I know Ubuntu is free.

And this is its big problem. It’s possible that if it wasn’t free and easily replaceable with other free things, I’d spend two or three days getting rid of Unity, installing a more functional desktop but of course I have to go and test a bunch of them before hoping there are no stability issues. The great beauty of Linux is that you can do a lot of customisation (although some of that is seriously limited within Unity). The great disadvantage for Linux is that sometimes, people don’t have enough time to do this. They have tasks they want to achieve, they know that in theory they are easier to achieve in Linux than they are on Windows (viz some Python related stuff and running a few other open source applications like R). Ultimately, there is a lot to be said for ensuring that when they open a basic, high profile distro, it works.

Most of what I’ve seen written about Unity by users – viz people who comment on blogs as opposed to people who write blogs – is that they’ve gotten used to it. It seems to be more a resigned tolerance than anything. A lot of people have switched over to Linux Mint. A lot have switched back to Debian. A lot have looked for ways of making other desktop environments usable. And a lot complain that it’s only a vocal minority whinging, who don’t like change. Most people, in my experience, don’t mind change which enhances their lives. When it is utterly disruptive and makes their lives harder, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.

I’m not a long term Linux user. It’s unlikely that I will ever again go near Ubuntu. Unity was unusable and when I looked into it any any detail, it was obvious that Canonical didn’t want to take on board any negative feedback, and it took three years for them to fix – sort of – one of the more annoying interface issues. I know some people find the whole keyboard centric search options fine. But I don’t see it as an OS for people who are superuser keyboarders. I see it as an OS to be avoided by people who are interested in structuring the information and assets they have on their computer. It’s all fine having search to find everything for you, except the few things you squash onto the Launcher. Everything I tried to do with it up front was a struggle. It’s possible that tinkering around with Linux is a hobby and a game for some people. Other people actually need it to function.

In my view, if you want to try Linux, Ubuntu really isn’t the best choice. Stick with Mint for now.

 

 

Documentation quick tip

Update Word – if you use it – with a couple of extra styles:

  • a style for code in some sort of monospace font (I use Courrier New and I colour it red)
  • a style for code commentary in some other font and colour (I use Century and I colour it blue).

When you are creating the style in Word 2013, you can tell the software to use this in all new documents as well and make it part of the Word normal template or the default. This is useful if you don’t want to build a separate template.

The other thing which may be useful is something highlighting action points and completed action points. I tend to use bold and and again, different colours, and for the case of completed action points, strike through.

People handle work and coding differently – I tend to like to have a commentary file of what I am doing, what I am trying to do, where I am stuck, how I’ve resolved problems, for each project and this is to ensure I don’t have to build a brand new document with new styles every time. Useful information on customising Word is here – I don’t recommend doing everything he suggests but there are ways of making it more helpful for you. If you’re not familiar with styles, they are useful to be able to work with.

Do you waste other people’s time?

When I went into my first commercial job at the age of 22, the company I was working for had also hired a new marketing executive. It wasn’t a big company. It had somewhat informal processes. And the first thing the new marketing executive commented on was that every single meeting started late.

Very few people have any slack in their schedules and the vast majority of people cannot avoid meetings either and meetings culture tends to have a huge knock on effect on how productive people are. Sometimes, I think people need to take a step back and ask whether their meetings etiquette has an impact on other people’s productivity. If I am trying to plan around a 30 minute meeting, does it matter if some one shows up late to that meeting?

Well yes. Very often, the meeting might not start until they arrive, if they are critical. And it may run over time as a result. If you are the person arriving late, you are wasting the time of the people waiting for you, and if as a result, your meeting runs overtime, it may have a serious knock on effect on your own schedule as you turn up later and later for meetings which run late. And this has a knock on effect on everyone else.

Think about it. You turn up late to a meeting. You waste collectively an hour of six people’s time. You have a knock on impact on the schedule of 6 other people who, if you’re lucky, aren’t actually trying to get to another meeting, but who may wind up back at their desk later than planned which may mess up some of their time planning for the day which will have a net negative impact on their productivity. It may cut the amount of time they have free to complete some task before another meeting in their schedule, or the amount of time free to do something you want from them. Meanwhile, you wander off to another meeting and do something similar to another 6 people. You personally could be responsible – by showing up late for your meetings – huge amounts of lost working time and thus lost productivity for your employer. While still being amazingly busy.

Your schedule is not yours alone. Because of the lack of slack in most modern companies, trying to do more with fewer people, your schedule is shared. If you mess up your schedule, you’re probably messing up the schedule of a lot of people around you as well.

Don’t be surprised if this has a knock on impact on their productivity.