Where can I listen to real interpreters at work?

Before I give you my answer to the question in today’s title, I have to say that I am a bit surprised I don’t get asked this more often. I guess it’s because 1) my students already know the answer, and 2) other people who ask me about conference interpreting aren’t aware that portals of interpreted events exist, so they don’t think to inquire after the links. Anyway, for what it’s worth, I thought I’d share with readers my top three websites for listening to real, live conference interpreters in action.

The first is EP Live, the European Parliament’s portal to webcasts of its plenary sessions, committee meetings and press briefings. These events can either be followed live (as the portal’s name implies) or viewed after the fact as podcasts. Here’s the fun part: you can switch between listening to the original language feed or tuning into any of the interpreting booths working at that particular meeting. Ever wondered what Joseph Daul sounds like in Polish? Wonder no more

A second resource is the United Nations Web TV portal. It’s like the Parliament’s, in that it offers a range of webcasts of events in real time, either in the original or the interpreted version. The main difference is in the language coverage; while EP Live offers the opportunity to listen to upward of 20 different booths for some meetings, English, Spanish and French are the main languages you’ll find represented on the UN’s site.

One feature that the UN site offers which the Parliament’s doesn’t is that it allows you to filter your search not only by category – meetings, news, features, issues, etc. –  but also by language. The UN site’s search engine lists the six official languages plus Portuguese, Japanese and Kiswahili. Neat!

Image courtesy of jannoon28 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of jannoon28 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Most interpreting students have already explored the EP and UN portals, so at this point I’m haven’t yet told them anything new. However, there is another, possibly less known place to catch conference interpreters at work: the European Commission’s Conferences WebTV portal, the one-stop shop for viewing all of the Commission’s webstreamed conferences and other events. If you’re lucky enough or time your visit correctly, you can follow the events live. You can also browse the archive of events and individual presentations by keyword or date.

Just like the other portals, once you’ve found what you’re looking for on the Commission’s WebTV, you can switch between the original language feed and the various interpreted versions.

Personally, I find the European Commission’s portal much more useful for practicing than the Parliament’s, since it provides complete, webstreamed coverage of events from start to finish. Picture a web page with links to every single thing said at a two-day fisheries meeting, from the opening session and keynote speech to the Q&A sessions, with – added bonus! – all the Powerpoint presentations thrown into the bargain. What more could one ask for?

The Commission’s webstreamed events are also a lot closer to what new interpreters will actually be doing when they first hit the market – after all, how many beginners cut their teeth on plenary sessions in Strasbourg or the UN General Assembly?

Before I conclude, let me just say that the one drawback of all of these portals (for interpreting students at least) is that it is not possible to listen to both the original and the interpretation as the same time. The only way to do that, as far as I can tell, is to open up two browser tabs and try to time the feed from the floor with the one from the booth so that they coincide. However, due to the delays caused by buffering, this is nigh on impossible. So if you want to compare a speech with its interpretation, you have to listen to the two versions separately, which is nowhere near as useful for learning purposes as listening to an interpreter working simultaneously from the original.

Still, these websites are perfect for students eager to hear how professional conference interpreters sound when they work, as well as for the merely curious who are wondering what real, live interpreters get up to all day.

Enjoy!

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… Speechpool!

If you’ve been following the SCIC Universities conference in Brussels over the past few days, you may have already heard the big news: Speechpool, the dynamic, collaborative, multilingual website for interpreters to exchange practice material, has just been officially launched. When I first caught wind of this project in January, I knew that this was something that my readers would want to hear about, so I got in touch with Sophie Llewellyn Smith, the founder, to find out more. Here’s what I learned:

MH: Sophie, you have just launched Speechpool, a speech-sharing website for interpreters. Could you tell me a little bit about what it has to offer?

SLS: Speechpool will offer interpreting students, graduates and practising interpreters a forum to upload practice speeches and view other people’s. The idea is to create something truly collaborative in the form of a multilingual website and a Facebook page.

Many students already give each other practice speeches in class, or in groups outside of class. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to record these speeches on a laptop, video camera or tablet computer, and allow others to benefit from them. If everyone gets involved, we could very quickly build up a large and dynamic bank of video clips.

MH: How did the project come about?

SLS: I spent several years as an interpreter trainer at the University of Leeds. Every year students would ask for good sources of practice material. Our main message to them was that they should prepare well-structured speeches for each other and practise in groups outside of class. Gradually we came to the idea of uploading audio files onto a file sharing website. We still had a problem with source language, though; sometimes our students were looking for speeches in a particular C language, but there was no native speaker of that language on the course. It occurred to me that students around the world were probably doing exactly the same thing. Surely it would make sense to pool all that material and make it freely available to everyone?

I have been working hard since last summer with a web developer to create a suitable website, and I have been very fortunate to receive financial backing from the NNI (National Network for Interpreting) in the UK, and a lot of help and goodwill from students and alumni of many interpreter training institutions. Now that the basics are in place, we are gradually working on adding more language versions to Speechpool, and starting to build up our stock of speeches!

The idea behind Speechpool is nothing new, but I hope the scale and ambition of the project and the features available on the website will make it a very useful and widely used resource.

MH: What target group do you have in mind? Are there any prerequisites that have to be met by those who’d like to become involved?

SLS: The website was designed with conference interpreting students in mind, but if the project is successful I would expect that other groups might take an interest, for example graduates wanting to maintain their skills or prepare for a test, practising interpreters trying to add a new language, interpreter trainers looking for material to use in class, or even language learners. It is also possible that the content of Speechpool might be of interest to public service interpreters, who make up a large proportion of the interpreting market in some countries and who don’t always have access to material (or even to training!).

We have set some limits on users who would like to upload material. This is to try to ensure that the speeches are of an adequate standard. You will need to be an interpreting student, graduate or practising interpreter to upload content, and you will need login details.

MH: Walk me through the website. How does it work?

SLS: First of all, I should say that the interface is multilingual, i.e. there will be parallel versions of Speechpool in English, French, Greek, and dozens of other languages. If you want to watch a speech in Hungarian, you simply go to the Hungarian version of the site (you can navigate from the home page).

To find a speech for interpreting practice, you will use a search function which allows you to search by topic (agriculture, finance, health etc.) and/or keyword. We hope this will allow users to refine their search and find the most relevant speeches.

To upload a speech, you will need to fill in an upload form with details of topic, keywords and links to background material. In order to avoid the site collapsing under the weight of massive video files, we have set it up so that speeches are actually uploaded to YouTube, then embedded in the Speechpool site. This means users will have to create a YouTube account.

For those who have concerns about privacy, YouTube allows you to adjust privacy settings to ‘unlisted’ so that the speech is only visible to those who have the link. It sounds rather complicated, but once you have a YouTube account, it’s really very quick and easy. We have counted on the fact that the new generation of interpreters is very comfortable with modern technologies, YouTube, Facebook and the like.

MH: What features or functions does Speechpool offer users?

SLS: The website has a few interesting features. First of all, when you have watched a speech, you can leave comments about it. You could even leave a link to your own interpreting performance (on YouTube) and ask for feedback from another user.

One of the important features of the site is that speeches won’t be graded for difficulty by an outside authority. Instead, the users themselves will vote on the perceived difficulty of the speech (a bit like the TripAdvisor site where you can vote on hotels or restaurants). This cumulative assessment by users will give each speech a ‘star rating’ for difficulty. When you search for a speech, you will be able to sort the results by star rating, but also based on whether the speech is recent, or very popular.

We very much hope that users will upload high quality speeches, but to address any quality problems we have created an alarm button. If you watch a speech and feel there is a significant problem with sound or image quality, or the quality of the speech itself (i.e. its content) you will be able to click on the alarm button and send an email to the site administrators to have the speech removed.

We see Speechpool as an interactive site where users can meet, chat, and ask for feedback or help. To encourage interaction between users, we have created a Speechpool page on Facebook. The idea of this page is that users can ask for a particular speech. For example, you might post: ‘please could someone prepare a speech about EU fisheries policy in Portuguese?’

To make the material uploaded to the site even more useful, we are asking users to include two links to relevant background material, and we are working on a way to allow uploads of transcripts and glossaries.

MH: What languages, topics, and interpreting modes will the speeches cover?

SLS: I confess I have taken a maximalist approach here. I can’t vouch in advance for what the speeches will cover, because it depends on who gets involved and uploads speeches; but the website is designed to accommodate speeches suitable for consecutive or simultaneous, a wide range of topics, and a truly vast number of languages. We are currently working on versions of the Speechpool site in the EU23, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Russian, Croatian, Turkish, Icelandic and Macedonian. After that, we’ll see!

I should add that I expect Speechpool will include speeches given in a range of accents, including non-native accents. Many interpreters are called upon to interpret English, or French, or any other language, spoken in an unfamiliar accent or by someone who is not a native speaker. The Speechpool site is designed to offer speeches of this type; there will be an indication of whether the author of the speech is a native speaker, and what sort of accent he or she has. One of the exciting things about this project, to my mind, is that it could bring together interpreters from all over the world. Just one example: students from Ghana, Cameroon and Mozambique have volunteered to prepare speeches.

MH: There are already a few speech repositories available on the internet. What added value does Speechpool offer?

SLS: There are pros and cons to every speech bank. They serve different purposes.

In a sense, Speechpool isn’t ground-breaking: there are already speech banks on the internet set up by students to practise together. They tend to be small-scale and to use audio files. Some of them are short-lived; they grind to a halt when the founding students graduate. And at least one has been taken over by pornographic spam posts, unfortunately! Speechpool can offer something on a much larger scale: very wide language coverage, video clips, and hopefully more permanent!

Of the larger scale speech banks, some offer ‘live’ recordings of political debates or speeches only, while others are libraries of various speeches that were not prepared specifically as pedagogical material for interpreter training. The SCIC/EP repository (author’s note: access to this repository is restricted to selected users) offers a mixture of speeches, some of them recorded live in Parliament, for example, and some of them prepared by trainers as pedagogical material.

The idea behind Speechpool, on the other hand, is that it should largely contain speeches prepared by students for students (or at least by interpreters for interpreters), in video format. All the material will be original. There won’t be any video recordings of politicians’ speeches or parliamentary debates. There will be minimal ‘policing’ of the site, and users will be responsible for posting high quality content. If everyone joins in, it will be a very dynamic resource with a rapid turnover and a large number of speeches.

I see Speechpool as a more interactive site than many speech banks, and the Facebook page is a nice opportunity for users to chat and make requests. The fact that users will vote on difficulty is another distinguishing feature.

All in all I suppose the added value I see is that Speechpool allows students to take responsibility for their own learning, but with a much wider pool of partners than might otherwise be possible. In an idealistic way, I see Speechpool as a way of bringing the different strands of the interpreting community together and creating something genuinely collaborative for the common good. And I very much hope we’ll avoid obscene spam messages!

MH: It all sounds very exciting! Do you see any potential pitfalls for this project?

SLS: Well, like any other collaborative project, the success of Speechpool will depend on its users. It will be interesting to see whether people are altruistic enough to make the project work; if no-one uploads speeches, the project won’t take off.

MH: Is the Speechpool site already up and running? Can people already use it to view and upload speeches?

SLS: The short answer to this is yes. We are busy testing the site, and some speeches have already been uploaded. The English, Greek and German versions are available, and we will be rolling out the other languages gradually. I expect the next few versions to include Italian, Spanish, French and possibly Hungarian and Macedonian.

MH: Where can my readers find out more?

SLS: I presented the project at the recent SCIC Universities Conference on 22nd March, and my presentation is available in the archive. A short clip introducing Speechpool has also been prepared by DG SCIC. The project was also featured in a recent video interview for the interpreting blog A Word in Your Ear.

As I said earlier, Speechpool also has a dedicated Facebook page. Click ‘like’ to receive regular progress updates and to become part of the Speechpool community. You can also follow Speechpool on Twitter (@Speechpool).

Most important of all, why not visit the site? You will find it at speechpool.net.

MH: How can people get involved in Speechpool?

SLS: The most important message I want to get across is that Speechpool will be free to use (though not to run…) and easy to access once you have login details, but the success of the project will depend on users!

If you can help us translate the content into another language, please get in touch at speechpool@gmail.com. More importantly, if you think this is a useful resource for interpreting students and you plan to view speeches and use them for interpreting practice, please upload a few speeches first! Speechpool is totally based on the principle of ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. So get involved! Prepare a speech, upload it onto YouTube, and ask for your Speechpool login details. We’ll be happy to oblige!

_____________________

Sophie Llewellyn Smith trained as a conference interpreter at the European Commission in 1994, with French, German and Greek as working languages. After two years as a temporary agent with SCIC, she returned to the UK in 1996 and combined freelance interpreting with interpreter training at the University of Leeds, where she also developed online materials for conference interpreter training for the NNI and ORCIT projects. She is currently back in Brussels, enjoying something of a respite following the Cyprus Presidency of the EU (while thinking ahead to the Greek Presidency!).

An Open Letter to the Founders of Babelverse

Dear Josef and Mayel,

You’re probably wondering why I have been ignoring your attempts to get in touch with me lately. After all, in the past we’ve exchanged tweets, corresponded by email and even skyped. But you will have undoubtedly noticed that I have not been responding to any of your overtures lately, and for that I think you deserve an explanation.

I’ve decided to give it in the form of an open letter, because I think my readers have a right to hear what I am about to say. Also, like my colleague Elisabet Tiselius states in her latest blog post to you, I feel these sorts of discussions are best held in the public domain, where everybody can benefit from the exchange and contribute to it if they wish. They should not be hidden away in private Skype chats.

But before I get started, let me just make one thing perfectly clear. My views on Babelverse have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that you represent a tech startup that promises to “disrupt” my industry. With all of the talk going around lately about the benefits of disruption and the dangers of stagnation, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that one can be very much in favor of innovation (which I most certainly am) while harbouring reservations about those who claim to offer this innovation. In other words, professional interpreters have every right to question your approach – and this includes your technology – without being immediately branded Luddites or characterized as crotchety old grannies who feel that this business hasn’t been the same since IBM came up with those newfangled Hush-A-Phone thingees back in 1927.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I feel like I can explain why I don’t consider your company a valid interlocutor in my work to further my chosen profession. Basically, it can be summed up in a few words: integrity, transparency, professionalism and mutual trust. I come into contact with a lot of people in my professional and personal wanderings, and long ago I decided that if they couldn’t meet these few basic requirements, then I would not waste my time with them. Let’s look now at my interactions with Babelverse in the past few months and see how you measure up.

definition of Babel

It all started with what the more generous among us might construe as a misrepresentation of the facts. When, last September, I tweeted my doubts about the working conditions you were offering, you immediately replied that you had “hundreds of pro interpreters on board, including aiic & eu terps”. The wording of this tweet set the alarm bells ringing. There are, in total, only a few thousand interpreters in the world who meet that description, many of whom are trusted contacts of mine. I found hard to imagine that I had somehow missed the news that “hundreds” of us had already discovered the existence of an as-yet largely unknown tech startup and had rushed to offer our services.

Now, you didn’t actually say that your hundreds of interpreters were all AIIC members or EU-accredited. Indeed, with the wording you used, it would suffice for two or three of us to have signed up to make your claim true. And as a matter of fact, I had actually heard from one or two colleagues who had told me that they had gone into your database in order to have a look around (they had been confused by the lack of information on the public site and had assumed that information on rates and working conditions would be provided in the members-only pages). But none of them had done any work for you yet.

I have to say that this last bit didn’t surprise me. According to the little information which was available on the Babelverse website at the time (which has since disappeared – more on that in a bit), the working conditions you were offering clearly contravened AIIC’s professional standards: there were three-hour simultaneous assignments being allocated to single interpreters working alone, and payment was to be based on actual mike time. No professional conference interpreter in their right mind, AIIC member or not, would ever consent to those conditions.

But back to my point. Soon after our Twitter exchange, you contacted me and offered to discuss the matter further on Skype (typical damage control tactic, by the way: get the criticisms off the social media and into the private domain). Then, during our Skype chat, when I asked you to put your money where your mouth is and show me your list of hundreds of AIIC and EU interpreters, you freely admitted that you didn’t have them. You went on to explain in your own defense that you had felt upset by my comments and had dashed off your tweet in the heat of the moment. Fair enough, but explaining that you have done something “in self-defense” and without premeditation doesn’t make your actions any less suspicious.

So much for integrity. Let’s talk about transparency for a moment. I think Elisabet has already very effectively made the point that you are not exactly serving transparency when you refuse to give references or reveal who your “expert interpreting consultants” are. I asked you this during our Skype chat as well, but you declined to reveal your consultants’ names, claiming this information was confidential. I ask you, what professional consultant offers his or her services in secret? Assuming they exist, what do they have to be ashamed of? If these consultants truly are helping you to shift the interpreting paradigm through disruptive innovation, they should be shouting it from the rooftops, not hushing it all up.

The point has also been made by others that there is absolutely no way to access your database of interpreters to see who’s in it. You claim on your page that the interpreter profiles are public, but I have looked everywhere and I can’t find any public profile except that of your Global Community Ambassador Laura. It is very nice to see that she speaks Spanish with a Buenos Aires accent and offers expertise in everything from Behavioral Science to Contract Law, but what I don’t see is if she – and the rest of your interpreters, for that matter – belongs to a professional association and/or has any recognized interpreting accreditations or other externally verifiable credentials to back up her claims.

What most worries me in terms of transparency, however, is something I just happened to notice the other day. You claim to want to engage with industry players, and have a plethora of forms and buttons on your website purporting to facilitate just that. And yet in the one place where a debate seemed to be emerging last fall – your FAQ forum – something seems to have happened. All of the threads that I saw building there last fall have now mysteriously disappeared. There weren’t many, admittedly, but there were a couple of interesting points being made. So where has it all gone? The only thing I can find on the FAQ page these days are five questions asked by Josef. Now that’s engagement.

I am pleased to say that in a rare show of prescience, I decided to take screenshots of some of the more interesting comments that were to be found on your FAQ page back then. I still have those screenshots, and I’d like to share just a few quotes from them with readers here:

“I am utterly confused as to how Babelverse works”

“unless you’re outright transparent about how Babelverse works, less and less (sic) professionals will put all their info in not knowing what comes next”

“not very good business practices, to expect professionals to accept work without knowing what they’ll be paid”

“you pay by the minute and your hourly rate is very low”

“there’s no training platform to be seen”

“sweatshop labor”

To be fair, I should say that there were a few comments on the forum made by interpreters siding with Babelverse. This one is my favorite:

“I interpret all day long with only a few min break to drink water. Isn’t that what I’m being paid for?”

I should also say that while not all of these questions received answers, there were a few that you replied to, mostly to say that Babelverse was in beta phase, that it was a work in progress, and that it would all be sorted out sooner or later. Fine, that’s fair enough. So why is there is no trace of these exchanges that I can point my readers to? How has purging your FAQ forum served transparency and improved your engagement with the industry? If those forum threads are still around, I challenge you to make them public again* so that my readers can have a look for themselves, and contribute their own views to the debate, if they are so inclined. Of course, they can do that here on my blog, too, and I would encourage them to do so. You two should also feel free to make comments on this page, of course. I’d like to hear what you have to say in response to this post. Please don’t expect me to react to any emails or DMs, though. I think I’ve made it clear enough why.

Now, I see that this post is getting quite long and I haven’t even started talking about professionalism and mutual trust, the other two measures of credibility that I mentioned at the start. But maybe I should leave it at this for now, and just point readers wanting to read more to the excellent comments made by my esteemed colleagues Vincent Buck and Marta Piera Marin (on the Babelverse site and InterpretAmerica’s blog) and Elisabet Tiselius (in her first and second posts on this topic). Like me, these people are both professional interpreters and enthusiastic adopters of technology. They also happen to know this industry inside out. I subscribe in full to all of the points they have made.

Depending on what happens next, I may decide to share with readers what I had intended to write in the second half of this post. For now, I would just like to leave you with a quote that I recently came across on the Twitter timeline of your Global Community Ambassador (of all places):

“Never lie to someone who trusts you, and never trust someone who lies to you”.

Disruptively yours,

Michelle

*The FAQ forum was made public again shortly after this post was published. You can find the link in the comments section.