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Silicon Valley Has Something to Teach Translators and Interpreters




By Barry S. Olsen

Published: 19 July 2013


Simplicity of use drives the adoption of new technologies. Complexity only drives away potential users. This is as true for translation and interpreting as it is for new technology.


Earlier this month I had the chance to rub shoulders with some of the most innovative companies in the unified communications and collaboration space, also known as UCC. If you haven’t heard of UCC before, don’t be too surprised. The enterprises and innovators I met at the Wainhouse Research 2013 UC+C Summit, hadn’t really given much thought to language services either, as their video systems and collaboration platforms clearly showed (with the exception of the company I was there to represent).


This is a disconnect I have come to expect whenever I venture into Silicon Valley and one that interpreters desperately need to remedy to ensure that language services (particularly interpreting) are not left out as these new remote collaboration platforms are envisioned, designed and ultimately rolled out. The good news is that many companies were aware of the growing language needs of their clients and are keen to meet those needs where they can—a good sign indeed.


At the end of my two days in technology wonderland I took away three clear lessons that are directly applicable to language services and interpreting, in particular: First, simplicity of use drives the adoption of new technologies. Complexity only drives away potential users. This is as true for translation and interpreting as it is for new technology. The simpler we make it for our end users to gain access to and use interpreting the greater our market will be.


Second, mobile connectivity is flooding the world. It is the fastest growing technology trend ever. Over the last 10 years mobile technology has been adopted twice as fast as the Internet in the 1990s and 10 times faster than PCs were adopted in the 1980s, according to the Summit’s keynote speaker, Peter J. Stewart (@petergtd) of PGi. This trend is reshaping how we communicate as a global society and its implications are profound. If almost everyone we usually interpret for (and I mean almost everyone, diplomats, defendants, doctors, patients, entrepreneurs, etc.) will be communicating and meeting with mobile technology, where does that leave the face-to-face interpreter?


Third, whatever new platforms are eventually dreamed up for remote interpreting will have to be based directly on the end users’ needs and the minimum requirements for interpreters to do their job well. Successful innovation in today’s environment is almost always based on what end users need, not on what would be cool, neat or really nice. This means that interpreters must have a very clear understanding of what our “must haves” are as we begin to engage with technologists and innovators. What is more, we will have to be ready to give a little when it comes to conditions that are nice but not essential to our work.


I know this is not all good news, but it is what I observed. Ironically, the challenges for video and web conferencing providers are strikingly similar to those faced by translators and interpreters—downward pressure on rates for services provided and new technologies that are eroding existing market conditions. So, translators and interpreters, take heart, we are not alone in our struggles.

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