Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The (Potentially Positive) Power of Disruption

noun: a disturbance or problems that interrupt an event, activity, or process
New Oxford American Dictionary

For the average person, the term disruption automatically brings to mind a negative process. An unexpected power shortage disrupted the Super Bowl. Hurricane Sandy disrupted life on the East Coast. Crispy Creme was out of chocolate creme donuts, disrupting my breakfast.

But sometimes disruption refers to concepts that we usually view in a more positive light: innovation, cutting edge technology, the growth in human interconnectedness. Indeed, the rapid change we are all experiencing encompassing just about every aspect of human interaction so frequently combines innovation with a profoundly disruptive effective, that we now speak of disruptive technology and disruptive innovation

In general, a disruptive technology is a "new technology that has a serious impact on the status quo and changes the way people have been dealing with something, perhaps for decades." (http://www.answers.com/topic/disruptive-technology)

Few industries are more impacted by disruptive technology than the interpreting profession. From the introduction of new video conferencing technologies, to the growth of social media and increasing global interconnectedness upending traditional practices for hiring interpreters, to instant translation and interpretation apps and the proliferation of digital terminology resources, technology is penetrating all levels of our profession.

But perhaps no innovation will change the face of our profession more profoundly than the rapid world-wide adoption of the smart phone. The first iPhone was introduced in June, 2007, the iPad tablet in April 2010. Barely more than half a decade has passed since these mobile devices hit the market, yet smart phones and tablets with internet access, together with traditional PCs, are now in the hands of more than 5 billion people around the world. 

Journalist Christoper Mims of The Atlantic posted a year-end article last December titled: The 5 Most Disruptive Technologies of 2012. Number 5 on the list? "Ultra-cheap Web Devices: Five Billion People with Internet Access." 

In this article, Mims asks the reader to consider:

"What does it mean that another one or two billion people are encountering the internet for the first time? If the value of the network is proportional to its size, what happens when most of Earth's inhabitants can tap into a common pool of information and contacts?"

For our profession, some are answering these questions by racing to develop apps and other technologies to take advantage of these hand-held computers. As a result, almost every aspect of the traditional model for delivering interpreting services is being challenged. Everything from training and hiring practices, to marketing and service delivery are now possible through a mobile platform, upending a profession that has for more than half a century functioned primarily with a face-to-face model.

Google Translate, real-time machine interpretation, real-time video delivery of live interpreting services over smartphone and tablets, the ability to interpret for any client anywhere in the world from the comfort of your home, are examples of just a few new technologies available to the interpreting profession. 

The downside, or disruption, can include lowered wages, a decrease in face-to-face assignments, difficult sound, visual and voice conditions with imperfect new technologies, and the loss of hard-earned labor/management employment models, among others.

The potential upside can include a hugely increased market, more full-time work for languages of lesser diffusion and interpreters who work outside of urban centers, greater awareness and visibility for individual interpreters and the profession as a whole, and the ability to provide previous hard-to-come-by training to a greatly increased geographic area, to name a few.

For the interpreting profession, the key question remains not whether we respond, but how. In a nutshell, we can reactive or be proactive.

We are excited to be highlighting this issue at the upcoming 4th InterpretAmerica Summit taking place in June with the interactive panel, The Coming Wave: Technologies That May Disrupt Interpreting. Representatives from Babelverse are among those presenting. Their services provides an excellent example of a proactive response to disruptive technology.

We encourage you check out our program and speaking and presenting opportunities, and register for the Summit today!


  1. As a long time professional interpreter and software developer (I started back in the the 14.4kb dial-up modem days) I would be interested to know what technology layer Babelverse offers on top of what everybody with a computer, a decent mic, and a broadband internet connection could do on their own.

    If it's just Skype for everybody with Babelverse doing the advertising and the billing, I'm afraid that the vision is far from being revolutionary at all. For as long as I care to remember we've had intermediaries (then brick-and-mortar, now going virtual) whose only skill is to try and resell services that they themselves have little understanding of.

    I'm no Luddite, and I have 800+ days of remote interpreting under my belt (for television and radio), but professional conference interpreting goes well beyond the 10-minute phone call that a businessman calling abroad needs an interpreter for. Professional conference interpreting is team work, and you need the whole team in the same place. And you can't do that with consumer electronics.

    And if it were to become an option in the future, which will take both technological innovation and a major re-training effort on the part of the interpreters, why should professionals accept to work anonymously for an outfit that takes 30% off their fees, when they could simply set it up themselves?

    Vincent Buck
    AIIC Conference Interpreter

    1. Hi Vincent,

      Thanks for reading the InterpretAmerica blog and for your valid questions about the use of consumer-grade technology for delivering interpreting services. We hope that you can join us at the 4th Summit where you can ask those questions directly to a representative of Babelverse and to other panelists as well.

      The fact that many start-ups have emerged trying to provide interpreting services in new ways is proof that there is a demand out there and that current delivery models are not covering that demand. The latest one I've seen--a start-up company from Europe--actually advertises the use of Skype as their platform of choice.

      I agree. More technological innovation is needed and there will need to be major re-training. However, I doubt that the training will be organized and broad based. In today's technology-enabled world, it will be up to individual interpreters to learn and adapt so they can take full advantage of the opportunities that are beginning to present themselves. Many are already doing just that. Based on your comments, I would say you are one of them.

      Barry Slaughter Olsen
      Co-president, InterpretAmerica

    2. Barry,

      I am afraid that you may be confusing cause and effect.

      Of course, I am aware of reports from some parts of the world whereby language services are supposed to be a fast-growth industry. But what's growing exactly? Is it the average earnings of interpreters? Or the number of intermediaries? Or that of self-styled spokespersons for the industry?

      As a participant in the tech scene for many years I can tell you that the main reason why newfangled language service providers à la Babelverse have appeared on the scene is that the tech world is awash in money. An additional reason is of course renewed interest in translation thanks to advances in statistical natural language processing (which by the way 'works' mainly by rehashing the work of armies of translators...)

      With my conference interpreter hat on, I'm not against new forms of delivery per se. Heck, I enjoy producing voice-overs for networks from home and doing the audio post prod myself. I am also certain that the delivery of some forms of interpreting will be facilitated by technology in the near future.

      But I am a professional, and as a professional I want a say in how the technology is getting used. I don't mind the platform provider making a buck. But I don't want them to push 'solutions' that seek to expand a market by driving prices down. I also don't want them to dumb down the service by making it appear that anyone who has a smattering of two languages can interpret. As I always tell my clients, no interpreter is always better than a bad interpreter.

      What particularly riles me up, to tell you the truth, is the utter cluelessness of those newcomers. Your guest Babelverse is a case in point. They are so dazzled by their technology that they totally forgot to learn even the basics about professional interpreting markets.

      If you think I'm being harsh, just listen to them here: http://techcrunch.com/2012/05/21/babelverse-is-out-to-democratise-translation/

      Unfortunately I won't be with you to ask those questions during your InterpretAmerica event, but I would welcome an open forum with BV or anyone else who thinks they are going to revolutionalise the field for that matter.

      In the meantime I would invite all professionals to debate such issues in their professional organisations, AIIC being the prime venue for conference interpreting.

      Vincent Buck

    3. Hi again, Vincent.

      Thanks for another round of valid questions. Sad to hear you won't be there to ask they directly. The idea of "crowdsourcing" or "democratizing" interpreting is a natural extension of the tech world's approach to everything. Your misgivings about it's feasibility or desirability are not unfounded. And frankly, I think the techie approach to providing language services has been largely ill informed and at times arrogant. Big data works for so many things, why not for interpreting? That is a question our profession needs to answer.

      You mention that you are a professional and want a say in how technology is getting used. I couldn't agree more. This is precisely why InterpretAmerica is reaching out to tech companies, and not just the one mentioned in this blog post. We encourage interpreters everywhere to seek opportunities to engage technology providers in meaningful and constructive dialog. If we don't, the very developments you decry, will continue to roll forward with no input from interpreters. Discussing these matters within the confines of professional associations is important, but if the conversation stops there, we may as well be preaching to the proverbial choir.

      I'll save the discussion on what's growing for another time. Far too much fodder for discussion to fit in a short comment. Thanks again for your comments.



  2. "For the interpreting profession, the key question remains not whether we respond, but how. In a nutshell, we can reactive or be proactive."

    As usual, the Human Element holds the key to how change will impact our lives. Thankfully, it can be on an individual basis which, in the business world, separates the success stories from the not-so-successful ones.
    Thank you for the outlook.

  3. Hi Gio and Vincent,

    This is precisely why I titled it the Potentially Positive Power of Disruption. Just as you rightly point out the kinds of interactions in conference where face to face will always be a superior option, the same is true for medical and legal, yet there is increasing pressure, especially with the ability to facilitate dialog interpreting such as carried out in hospitals via ipads and iphones, to stick the interpreter in a room with a camera and have them go at it non-stop all day long in isolation. Many rightfully see this as an upside in increased efficiency and a downside in the quality of communication and working conditions.

    But as Barry says, the market is actually expanding and there are many scenarios where remote interpreting can be justified and are needed, and the new technology platforms seeking to deliver the service can play a positive role.

    The point of the conversation is to have it! That's why we are highlighting several some of these new models coming into the profession - to increase all of our awareness of what they are so that we can proactive in making sure our interests as practicing interpreters are safeguarded.

    Thanks for your input!


  4. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing your thought.

  5. While for a different industry - this is a very interesting article about digital disruption and how an entire industry (the music business) lost out by categorically rejecting change to Apple, who seized the moment and created iTunes, changing the consumer relationship to music forever.

    In some ways that is the point of this blog piece - the technology is here whether we like it or not. The interpreting profession cannot stop the digital revolution that is upending almost every industry as we know it, and indeed, our personal lives. So, we need to sit down with the developers of these new platforms and get engaged, otherwise we have no hope of influencing the workplace models we will eventually end up with.