Upcoming Event: Who Needs Languages? A Dialogue

Today, over 100 languages are spoken in Scotland. While English dominates trade, education and politics; the future of Scotland’s other “native” languages: Gaelic, Scots and BSL remains uncertain. As a result of immigration and growing international economic and cultural links, newer language communities have also found a welcoming home in Scotland.

Against this backdrop, Heriot-Watt University is proud to present Who Needs Languages, a half day event aimed at raising awareness of linguistic diversity in Scotland. It will bring together representatives of different language communities, language practitioners (such as teachers, interpreters, translators, and cultural mediators), public and private sector bodies, researchers and policy makers. This will allow the event to serve as a forum to share models of good practice and gain a better understanding of how to manage and support linguistic diversity.

Who Needs Languages will be followed by a networking lunch to encourage continued interaction amongst participants. This event will take place on Monday, 5th December.

Not many places remain for the event so please register your interest now to avoid disappointment. The online registration form is no longer available. Reports coming soon.

Best of Frenemies? Machine and Human Translation

It was all so simple in theory. With enough computing power, a handful of smart linguistics boffins, a few computer scientists and enough time, human translators would be as obsolete as punch card programming. No matter the text, no matter the subject, Machine Translation (MT) would give you a word perfect version every time in whatever language you wished.

As with most utopian dreams, it would all end up a bit more complicated than anyone could have predicted. Language, you see, is a funny beast. Just as you think you have it all described and analysed, along comes some creative addition or reuse. Tired of “footprint” just referring to the remnants of last night’s walk along the beach? Strap the word “carbon” onto the front and you have a chic environmental term. Bored with “surfing” only involving foamy waves and sleek hair? Mix things up a bit and add some fishing terminology and you get “surfing the net,” which, oddly enough has everything to do with technology and nothing much to do with the sea.

Even traditional songs take on a whole new slant once people start playing with language. “Don we now our gay apparel” used to mean getting dressed up for a Christmas meal. Now, on the other hand, it has a completely different meaning altogether!

All this was enough to play havoc with translation engines. How on earth could anyone write software based on nice, stable rules when word use and meaning changed all the time? What a mess!

No worries, thought the MT gurus, we have a plan. That plan was to beat creativity at its own game. Instead of trying stable, unchangeable rules, MT software started using existing language as a template for its versions. Give your software a big enough database of language and some nifty statistical algorithms and you could get reliable results, or so it was thought.

Actually, this works fairly well. The much maligned rule-based Babelfish has been taken over by the stats-based Google Translate, which has the bonus of a huge database of UN language to work from. Feed in the right kind of language to Google Translate and you do get passable results. On the other hand, feed in certain kinds of language, translate backwards and forwards a bit and Rick Astley’s “Never gonna give you up” becomes “You’ll never leave,” which is funny and ironic but wrong.

So, for the moment, it looks like MT isn’t quite good enough on its own, especially since it can only ever be as smart as the data humans give it. In fact, it is this partnership between human common sense and machine processing that seems to be the way forward. Now, instead of MT taking over, it has been coupled with its somewhat more respectable cousin Computer Aided Translation (CAT) into flexible translation toolkits. Today’s translators, it seems, are happy to take whatever help they can get and are smart enough to be able to use a variety of tools at once.

More importantly, this partnership suggests that translators’ jobs are safe, at least in the near future. Rather than Machine vs. Human being a battle to the death, it has become more of a growing partnership.

Jonathan Downie

More Stuff We Should Probably Know, But Don’t

The last post in this series provided a nice list of questions that are still unanswered in translation and interpreting research. Admittedly, some of those questions were not of the kind that professionals might deal with each day. To counter this, here are a few questions that professionals will face. Once again, we are waiting on a final answer to any of them. If you have any thoughts, drop us a comment.
• Are “rush” translations always worse than translations with long deadlines?

It’s a common occurrence: that lovely client now wants 2,250 words done by the end of today and it is already 11am. It’s going to be pretty tight. Does this restriction mean that the translation will necessarily be worse than if the deadline had been 3 days or does it force translators to be more efficient? Will extra caffeine help or will it overstimulate you? Is it better to do the job with no breaks or to slip in some time to eat? How could you tell the difference? How would you answer this question anyway?
• What do clients really want?

They say they want great work for a great price but what is great work? If they had to choose between fast turnaround, excellent quality or cheap work, which would they want? Perhaps different clients want different things. If this is the case, how can you know for sure what your clients want? How do you align what they want with what you are able to give them? If you were set the task of discovering what a particular client wanted from their translators and interpreters, how would you go about it?

• What is the fairest way of charging?

Do interpreters really get a better deal if they charge per day and not per hour? Are translators better off charging per line, per page, per word, per hour or setting a single all-in-one price? Which do clients prefer? What does “fairest” mean in this context?

• Is it always better to translate or interpret into your native language?

This is truly controversial but people have taken it on. Typically, translators and interpreters are advised to only work into their native language. Is this actually a good idea? What does “native” mean anyway? Are there times when it is better to translate or interpret into your second or third language? What does all this mean for those who work in liaison interpreting, where they are permanently interpreting in both directions?

Each of these questions suggests another long list of questions that need an answer before the main question can be tackled. None of these questions has an easy or quick answer. In fact, however you answer these questions, your answer will stimulate another long list of questions. In research, you very rarely get a final answer but what you do get are ideas, theories and results that can be tested against real-world experience. Somewhere along the line, that small piece of work on, say, quality in rushed translations gets added to another piece of work and another until we grow to understand the world of translation in a fuller way. That is research and this is what we do here at Heriot-Watt
Jonathan Downie

Stuff We Should Probably Know, But Don't

“So, is interpreting really complicated enough to need research?”

It’s an all too common question, especially from those who have never tried to do interpreting. For some reason, many people imagine that the work of translators and interpreters consists mainly of looking up words in bilingual dictionaries and stringing them together. If that is the case, then there really is no need for research. All we need to do is make sure that translators and interpreters have expensive enough dictionaries and leave them be.

Obviously, the truth isn’t quite as simple as that. There are a surprising number of questions that remain unanswered in both translation and interpreting, any one of which could be honed into the basis for a nice PhD proposal. Here are a few.

• How exactly does university-level training improve interpreting and/or translation performance?

It is an unspoken assumption that if you do a good university course in translation or interpreting, you will be a more able translator at the end. However, no one seems quite sure exactly how or even if this might work. Is it just a matter of providing space for targeted practice? Are there techniques that are only learned at university? Is it more about setting people up as lifelong learners? The list could go on.

• Do interpreters in different settings (international conferences, courts, business negotiations, hospitals, etc) use the same basic processing strategies?

We could easily imagine that “interpreting” is a single skill, which can be transferred to any setting. After all, all interpreters need good memory use, the ability to process several inputs at once and sensitivity to linguistic nuance. However, we already have research that points out that the demands placed on interpreters in different settings vary enormously. Does this mean that interpreting in different settings involves different processing strategies? If so, how would you know? A similar question could be asked about translating different kinds of documents. Do legal translators use the same skills as literary translators? If not, why not? If so, how could you tell?

• How exactly do translators and/or interpreters choose between different ways of translating the same phrase or term?

Anthony Pym has suggested that translators and interpreters will always try to minimise the amount of risk involved in any translation. So, if there is any ambiguity, they will tend towards literalism for fear of introducing unintended meaning. This seems plausible enough but does it actually represent the actual thought processes of those doing the work? What criteria do professional translators use when deciding how to translate something? What criteria do interpreters use? Does this change according to context or according to training? What effect might rates of pay or tiredness have on these decisions? How can we know how translators are making their decisions?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg. I am sure that any reader of this blog could create a much longer list than can be seen in this post. Only by research could we ever have answers to any of these questions, which each tell us something important about language and communication. One of the amazing things about research is that it would take a lifetime for any one person to answer any of these questions. By working together, breaking down these large problems into smaller chunks and sharing our results, we can begin to tackle them.

Deaf in the Story

Thanks to all who participated in the ‘Deaf in the Story’ knowledge exchange event organized by Heriot-Watt University’s BSL:UPTAKE project at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh yesterday. Wasn’t it great? We’re grateful to the Edinburgh Beltane project http://www.edinburghbeltane.net/ for the prize which enabled us to set up this event.

We took the event to the Storytelling Centre with the feeling that we are now in an important chapter in the story of British Sign Language. There are undoubtedly many challenges to the Deaf community – especially to the quality of education for deaf children – but there are exciting developments occurring, too. The proposed Bill to the Scottish Parliament to promote BSL is of huge significance and we’re proud that Heriot-Watt University is contributing to this process.

Stories are all about change and the journey we make together through life. One of the most fantastic aspects of ‘Deaf in the Story’ was the age-range of the visitors – from the youngest infant to the most senior citizens –representing every stage of life’s story. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking about the not-yet-born and about absent friends who fought for BSL in the past and were surely with us in spirit.

BSL:UPTAKE began life as a Scottish Funding Council pilot ‘Knowledge Exchange’ project. SFC wanted to encourage universities and government to communicate more effectively together. Heriot-Watt argued that this was good, but involving the Deaf community too would be even better: and SFC supported this ambition. For us, the knowledge exchange principle is simple – ‘If knowledge is worth having, it’s worth sharing’. And knowledge about BSL resides firmly in the community as well as in academia and public authorities.

‘Deaf in the Story’ also reminded us of the many ways in which we share what we know. University folk tend to think about analysis and teaching, but of course there is vital knowledge embedded in fiction, biographies, demonstration, symbolism and imagery.  As we saw, when we share in the creation and representation of knowledge, the results have a tremendous impact.

The stories on display at Saturday’s Knowledge Exchange café captured memories of the past and dreams for the future. They are vital to planning for the continuity of a proud Deaf identity. And the strength of BSL is utterly central to that aim.

So what shall we do together next?

Please keep in touch with www.bsluptake.org.uk and find out about our ongoing ‘EdSign’ open lecture series, featuring Deaf and hearing presenters from the UK and beyond, and news of other events, at http://sites.google.com/site/edsignlectures/

Heriot-Watt University is working to drive forward the cause of BSL in Scotland and across the UK, creating new opportunities for study, research and development of the BSL story. Watch this space!

Broken Britain: Blame the Interpreters?

“People in Britain who cannot speak English have cost the taxpayer almost £180m in interpreters over the past three years,” says a prominent report by Kevin Dowling and Mark Hookham in a recent Sunday Times article (23.10.11, page 7). In fact, the topic is considered so important by the Sunday Times that it also gets discussed in an opinion piece (‘Immigrant integration gets lost in translation’, by Dominic Raab, Conservative MP for Esher & Walton, page 31) in the same issue of the newspaper.

In the course of these two articles, interpreters are held doubly responsible for the state of the nation. For one thing, they are – we’re told – a huge drain on public resources at a time when we can least afford it. And for another, they stop immigrants settling firmly into the community by enabling them to resist any requirement to learn English.

The “enormous” expense of interpreting services, says the MP, “highlights the hidden costs of uncontrolled immigration”. The solution, we’re told, is pretty straightforward. Interpreters will be hired through a private contractor and paid £22 an hour. Now, let me think, what might suffer if the sums spent on interpreters are so sharply reduced?

Oh, yes – that would be quality. Why is it hard to understand that the knee-jerk of paying poorly will just create different problems?

One, it will mean that experienced professionals will not take on this kind of work. The gaps will be filled by less-qualified people. Now, which other public service professionals – police officers, teachers, doctors who will not be able to do their jobs properly without effective interpreting – would consider £22 an hour to constitute fair and appropriate recognition of their skills?

Two, it will mean that the interpreters available will not be as well-trained for the task. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to spot the clamour for reducing the training required for surgeons or riot police. What’s behind this disparity? Could it be the myth that any bilingual can automatically interpret?

Thirdly, and most importantly, cutting corners and therefore failing to put effective communication in place is a false economy. This Department has argued long and hard for some serious accounting for the real, hidden, long-term costs of inadequate interpreting. Where are the public policy economists who will work with us on this issue? We’re more than ready to take up the challenge.

From 1993-1995, I researched court interpreting (click here http://forestbookshop.com/pages/Categories/0946252483.html for some published results of this research) with one group of minority language users in the UK. I watched from the public gallery as a lengthy trial collapsed owing to inadequate interpreting. That false start alone – back in the mid-90s, mind you – cost over £1m.

And, fortunately, the problems in that instance were noticed. What happens when they’re not? What then is the cost in mis-diagnosis, wrongful imprisonment, lost business and, above all, the loss of human well-being?

Of course money shouldn’t be squandered. And without doubt, it is good to facilitate English-language development enthusiastically and in appropriate ways. But, please, let’s not fool ourselves that the cost of decent interpreting can disappear by magic. These measures will not remove those costs, but only ensure that they come with a side-order of misery.

Author: Graham Turner

Inside IPCITI 2011

One of the perks of doing research is that occasionally you have the chance to visit exotic places to attend conferences. Other times, the conference comes to you. That’s what happened last weekend, when a selection of PhD students and staff from Heriot-Watt attended the International Postgraduate Conference in Translation and Interpreting (IPCITI) at Edinburgh University. This event, co-run by Edinburgh University, Heriot-Watt University, Dublin City University and Manchester University brings together PhD students, recent PhD graduates and even some experienced researchers, from all over the world.

So, what’s the point of having conferences like this?

Research is really a team sport. While every PhD has to be the product of the researcher’s own work, we really can’t do a lot without the help of others. As well as learning from the work that others have done by quoting them, researchers benefit from personal interaction. This allows us to swap ideas, receive feedback on our work and better understand what other people are doing.

This is where IPCITI comes in. By bringing together some of the newest researchers in the field, it promotes a supportive, open environment where people can receive honest feedback on what they are doing. This was certainly the case this year.

From Chaucer to Slobodzianek and from interpreter training to historical linguistics, the presentations on offer at IPCITI offered a remarkably varied cross- section of research. There was something for pretty much everyone. This didn’t mean that the arrangement of talks was haphazard or random. Actually, the organisers did a great job of arranging the talks into coherent “panels” or groups to help you make your decision as to where you would go next.

For my part, I had the honour of not only presenting a paper (on improving surveys on what our clients want from us) but also of chairing a panel, keeping the presenters to time and making sure the talks more or less ran to time as well. Add in generous amounts of time for networking and some inspiring plenary talks and you have a very tempting recipe.

Amidst all the presentations and networking, there was also an element of fun to the conference. IPCITI is generally a fairly relaxed affair and the conference meal reinforced this. So it wasn’t all work, work, work. Most translation and interpreting academics are very approachable and happy to chat over coffee.

In short, for anyone with even the slightest interest in what is happening in the field of translation and interpreting, IPCITI is the place to be. After all, a large number of the presentations dealt with matters that students or professionals would be interested in. Richard Bale explored the use of computerised materials to improve student interpreting performance, An-Chi Chen looked at how interpreters improve their performance once they leave university and Magdalena Dombek examined why people help with crowd sourced translations.

There are few places where you can find this kind of cutting-edge research within such a welcoming environment. Next year, the baton passes to Dublin City University. If you are at all interested in translation and interpreting, it is not to be missed.