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“Getting It”: One Interpreter’s Reflections on Jonathan Downie’s Interpreters vs Machines

Known for his “troublesome” pushing back against the status quo, Dr Jonathan Downie structures Interpreters vs Machines: Can Interpreters Survive in an AI-Dominated World?— his second book — as a game, and invites us to play.

The robots are pretty cute, actually.

OK, I’m in.

He speaks from his experience as a researcher and conference interpreter, but from the beginning he brings us all into the fold– spoken and signed language interpreters in every setting. No matter where we’re working, we’d all do well to pause and reflect on how we understand and talk about our work. The fundamentals of what we do and how we talk about it to clients also seem relevant to my previous work in running an interpreter services department in the healthcare setting, where even though in theory, the services were required by law and hospital policy, in practice, we still very much had to sell interpreter services (even though the service came at no cost to the users!).

I read Jonathan’s first book, Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence, shortly after finishing my master’s in conference interpreting, while I was chasing my tail, trying to figure out why life after grad school was so hard if I’d already done the hard part (spoiler: grad school is definitely not the hard part, but it seems like it at the time). This first book was the beginning of a reframing of my work, and an exploration of what it means to have a vested interest in the outcomes, and how interpreters can most effectively (gasp) interact with clients and partner with them.

Much of the second book is not a critique of the robots, but a critique of how interpreters think about what we do, and consequently how we can bungle talking to clients about what we do. I took it as an invitation to reflect on the messaging interpreters have created around our work and how we might benefit by understanding what the robots promise, how we work with them, and where they fall short.

The Conduit and the Robot

Interpreters vs Machines begins by teasing out that old school conduit (accuracy, impartiality) model of interpreting, which isn’t a new critique, but does provide important context to understanding how we talk to clients about what we do. If interpreters advertise the strength of their services as accuracy and impartiality (like, was not being accurate an option?), and claim that the best interpreting happens when nobody notices we’re there, well then, that sounds a lot like something a robot could do.

The focus here is not the technical side of interpreting and how humans may do it better than robots. Rather, the focus is on messaging, which the “robot” marketing gets. He walks us through what they promise and what interpreters promise. And it becomes very clear how the robots look so attractive. They have great messaging, and promise to easily and accessibly solve a problem. So why can’t we have that? Interpreters are great at communicating, so how can we — how can I?– get it so wrong when communicating with clients? 

The Research

As a non-researcher, I particularly appreciate how existing research and theory (regarding the interpreters and the robots) is presented in an accessible way, and made relevant to my work in terms of how I speak with and listen to potential clients. Research shows that interpreters don’t necessarily practice what they say they do, and recognizing that gap is a good first step towards getting a leg up on the robots, or at least understanding where they fit. Rather than crossing our fingers and hoping that they’ll always be too flawed to replace us, Jonathan proposes a different approach—Understanding how we’re different, and presumably leveraging that.

I appreciate that Interpreters vs Machines speaks to all of us with a variety of anecdotes from the author’s experience, and meets us in whatever stage of understanding we happen to be about our work and technology. And because the “robots” are so well-defined in the book (different technology that works with the written and spoken word) it’s quite clear what we’re talking about (rather than shaking a fist toward the sky, “Argh, robots!”). Some years ago, I had my own first encounter with the “robots” when the language services department I supervised switched from mostly on-site interpreter services to Video Remote Interpreting (VRI), and I quickly realized that the so-called “robots” were actually our colleagues, working with technology to make the service deliverable in a different way. This distinction is important.

The Adventures

The middle of the book is structured as a choose your own adventure book, like the ones I read when I was a kid and robots were the stuff of sci-fi. You get to choose: A world in which the days of human interpreting are numbered, a world in which you think that legal protections will save us human interpreters, a world in which only the most specialized of human interpreters will survive, and finally, a world in which human interpreting becomes the “gold standard”. As someone who embodies the triumph of optimism over everything else, I opted for the final world. But all of those possibilities are important to consider.

The Stories

The More Than Words chapter was my favorite, as it rolls out specific examples of do-this-don’t-do-that to back up a shift in mindset that puts the client, rather than the interpreter at the center. Jonathan uses a good measure of story telling to illustrate the points, and indeed models what it looks like to engage a community through story telling. There’s something for everyone here, told in a playful and relatable style. When a story begins with …”and to our sheer horror…” you know there’s going to be a resolution, with the interpreters as heroes–Though the client is likely never the wiser to the close call.

The Truth

As I enter my forth year post grad-school, and the end of my second year in a spectacularly challenging freelance market, I’m looking for a second (or maybe third or fourth) wind. I found this book to be wholly relatable, especially because in the final part of the book, Jonathan writes from a place of vulnerability. He doesn’t have it all figured out either in terms of how things will shake out, and I admire that brand of leadership.

He includes recommendations for further reading on marketing specifics, getting direct clients, but goes on to describe the current situation. Refreshing, as most would write about their experience only after having made it. As a member of the not-yet-made-it club myself, and a writer, I appreciate this, as it can be tough to write from the vulnerable place of not-yet-there. And here we’re faced with an uncomfortable truth: Maybe we don’t market because we don’t know how to talk to clients, and maybe we don’t market because it’s easier and more comforting to imagine the potential client base rather than taking to them and discovering that they don’t in fact want to buy our services (I feel seen here). After ripping off that band-aid, he goes on to a more comforting truth: So much of it is simply hammering away at it—With the right approach, but doing it even (and especially?) when it feels like a slog.

Interpreters are especially good at listening, and we’d do well to take a page from Jonathan’s book, and put those listening skills to use with clients–Something I plan to practice more of as I move forward. Finally, he brings the content home with a call for community among interpreters.

The best interpreters are great communicators, bright, curious, and adaptable. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but throughout his book, Jonathan Downie asks us: How will we put those skills to use and advance to the next level? More importantly maybe, can we shift our thinking to understand that the robots are not our competition, but our partner, after all. Dear Jonathan reminds us: “I used to think that interpreting was all about language skills with some people attached; now I realise that it’s all about people skills with language skills attached.”

7 thoughts on ““Getting It”: One Interpreter’s Reflections on Jonathan Downie’s Interpreters vs Machines

  1. Apparently his book has not been released, and is called “Interpreters vs Machines: Can Interpreters Survive in an AI-Dominated World? 1st Edition”

    Is this the same book in your review? How did you read it if is hasn’t been out yet?

    Your review is making me eager to read it though.

    1. Thank you for pointing this out so I could correct it! I thought I’d made all my edits, and got wrapped up in my robot theme! Jonathan shared the text with me.

    1. Gerardo just from our conversation at last year’s MATI conference, I know that you’ll also find this book provides many chances for reflection on our work.

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