Quality Time with Dolmetscheragentur24: Quality is made by people who know their stuff

It’s always quality time, no matter how small or large the task, says Benjamin Bühl, founder and managing director of Dolmetscheragentur24. In our series of expert interviews on translation quality in the language services sector, Sara Cantaro, cultural and linguistic mediator and oneword marketing manager, talked to him about the demands and many different aspects of interpreting – and discovered that, in addition to the same high quality standards, we also share the ‘caring gene’ in our service approach.

oneword is a full-service language service provider with a primary focus on translations and translation technologies. For interpreting work, such as simultaneous interpreting for customers visiting from abroad or dubbing videos, we have been working for several years with Dolmetscheragentur24 GmbH (DA24) from Rottweil. From this base – as well as other locations in Hamburg, Munich and Alpirsbach – DA24 operates with a worldwide network of over 5000 interpreters, translators and cooperation partners, offering more than 180 languages in a wide variety of combinations. Their extensive portfolio covers services and interpreting work ranging from voicing call answering systems to large events, including the provision of conference and event technology.

Quality Time: Dolmetschen; Sara Cantaro und Benjamin Bühl

Sara Cantaro (oneword GmbH) and Benjamin Bühl (Dolmetscheragentur24 GmbH)

Sara Cantaro (SC): It’s great that you’ve found time to talk to us, Benny. Since we’ve already completed a huge range of different interpreting projects together, I’d like to take a look with you at how interpreting has changed over time, what has stayed the same, where the challenges lie and where new fields of business have opened up. The key theme in all of this is digitalisation.

Benjamin Bühl (BB): I’d love to. We’ll certainly have plenty to talk about.

SC: So, let’s get started… Interpreting differs from written translation primarily in that interpreters work in live surroundings and in person. How has the work and working environment of interpreting changed?

BB: Interpreting, like so much else, has become more digital. In recent years, digitalisation was already becoming a clear trend – and then Covid came along. The restrictions on any form of face-to-face contact during the pandemic have massively accelerated digital applications and virtual formats for everything from small meetings to large conferences over the last two or three years.

Today, meetings via MS Teams, Google Meet or Zoom are taken for granted. Since the pandemic, people no longer fly to Barcelona for a two-hour meeting. Instead, meetings are held in ten, sometimes fifteen languages, and with participants in locations all over the world. The same applies to the possibilities offered by live streaming.

SC: From where and to where does live streaming take place?

BB: Product launches are a good example. In the past, you might have rented a venue in Frankfurt that could hold 10 000 people. Now you can do something similar in a live stream and reach many more participants in one go. If you deliver your event synchronously in English, Spanish, French, you can get pretty far in the world. And many customers have discovered this for themselves and it can be done with relatively little effort.

SC: What does this small amount of effort look like?

BB: It doesn’t really matter whether you set up the live stream in German only or interpret various languages in the background because you have to put in a basic amount of effort anyway. We then provide the interpreters virtually with special tools. So we can interpret meetings or workshops into many languages, no matter whether they last an hour or three days. The client then just sets up a landing page for access – or we can help with this – and then they can switch the French-speaking participants to the French live stream, the Spanish speakers to the Spanish live stream, and so on. This creates great opportunities for reaching out to a broad clientele.

For hybrid events, which we now do a lot of – 500 participants sit in one room and the others are connected digitally – the customer gets the complete technology package. We also provide a contact person and we take care of everything needed for the event.

SC: Tools are a good keyword. What work do the tools do for you?

BB: So, first of all, it’s very important to note that in interpreting, we work one hundred percent with people. When I talk about tools, I either really mean our tools, i.e. everything that makes up our conference technology, or the digital platforms and the associated interfaces we use for interpreting. If, for example, a meeting takes place in MS Teams, the interpreters can log in via an interface, follow the meeting and interpret everything from the source language into the desired target language.

“We work one hundred percent with people.”

SC: In our work, we know that it’s always important to formulate detailed requirements and to work closely with our customers so that we can deliver the desired quality in the end product. Does that apply to interpreting too?

BB: Definitely. Interpreting isn’t just dependent on the situation, either. It’s a misconception that simultaneous interpreting, for example, happens spontaneously. Knowledge and information about the content and context are critically important. The interpreter must know what it is about and be prepared for it.

“A good briefing and the right skills determine the success of the project.”

SC: What is essential for successful interpreting assignments?

BB: A good briefing and the right skills. I know I’m repeating myself (laughs), but that’s what matters.

When it comes to the briefing, we need both good documentation and consistent terminology – i.e. the relevant technical terms, ideally listed in the source and target languages, so that simultaneous interpreting doesn’t involve talking about something completely different from what is perhaps written in marketing documents or things like that.

SC: One very important detail of our cooperation is that oneword does the preliminary work in terms of terminology so that the interpreters can do their work well.

BB: Exactly. It would be great if all our other partners always did this too. I also need to know what kind of event it is and who the target audience is. Is it an introductory seminar or a C-level event? Are we providing interpreting for a presentation or a training event? If it’s training, we need the training materials to research the technical terms in advance. If it’s a presentation, the interpreter needs to be familiar with the manuscript so that the speaker doesn’t get ahead of them during the presentation – because many presenters speak very quickly. Or they speak unintelligibly, which should also be avoided.

SC: What do you mean?

BB: For example, when people try to speak English at all costs when delivering a presentation, to show their internationality. From our experience, often it is best to advise speakers to use their own mother tongue because they speak it clearly and that is the best starting point for interpreting it clearly as well.

Of course, it always depends on the context. In the preparation and planning stages, we need to know what the event is about so that we select the right interpreters in terms of qualification, specialisation and language combination – and make sure that they not only have the language and cultural context, but also the professional knowledge and experience. I can’t take an interpreter specialised in law to a medical congress. Or get someone to interpret economics if they are an expert in sport. Our interpreters each have their own specialisations.

SC: Contrary to popular belief, interpreters are of course not professional speakers. Where do they come from? What do you need to become an interpreter?

BB: I assume the requirements are similar to those of your translators. Our interpreters are usually native speakers who have undergone translator training. The only difference is that they perhaps prefer to speak than to write. In addition to their specialist skills they have expertise in a particular field such as business, technology or law. Experience is also important – especially for simultaneous interpreters, life experience and empathy are often crucial factors. Of course, good interpreters must not only know the language, but also the cultural context. That’s why we use native speakers.

SC: The word ‘interpreter’ presumably implies that the job involves not a mere word-for-word translation, but that it’s more about localisation.

BB: Good point, exactly. This applies both to different cultural areas, such as the understanding of specific Asian mannerisms compared with European ones, and to differences in what is often taken to be the same language. For example, subtle differences between Iberian and South American Spanish or North American and British English. You have to know the subtleties to be able to interpret them.
For a basic understanding, for example in relation to Asian business contacts, we also offer intercultural training and condensed knowledge in written business guides.

“You have to know the subtleties to be able to interpret them.”

SC: What other services do you offer?

BB: Whatever is needed. Our language services are customised and completely contextual.

From a technical standpoint, we also do a lot in the field of voice-overs, for example. We’ve just completed one such project with oneword. Your client had a video in German and English and needed it interpreted into Spanish. The choice was whether they wanted to have just the audio file and edit the video themselves or whether we would do it as a complete package. Then you still hear 20 per cent of the German or English sound – depending on what the original is – and the Spanish soundtrack is simply superimposed.

SC: And what do you offer in terms of non-technical services?

BB: Then, we have even more to offer (laughs). For example, for our interpreting services we also handle everything else involved. It might be that we help during table talk at an evening event, accompany people on unplanned doctor’s appointments, book hotels and flights, procure visas and so the list goes on.

This is what I personally understand by full service. This is where our distinct ‘caring gene’ comes into play.

SC: Where else are interpreters used? Do they work in areas that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with interpreting?

BB: The question is rather where interpreters are not used (laughs). Seriously, the field is almost endless. Sometimes we are even surprised ourselves at what interpreters are needed for. For example, we go to Italy once a year when the FC Bayern Legends play the MAN Allstars and a simultaneous interpreter is needed for dinner conversations and the like. We have previously interpreted for Andrea Bocelli and other celebrities at German broadcaster MDR.

Most people think of interpreting in connection with industrial companies, but there are so many everyday and non-everyday areas where interpreters are needed. For the automobile association ADAC, for example, we can also be involved in sudden events, i.e. accidents when the people involved do not speak the language. Sometimes you experience things that really affect you.
Or we accompany people who cannot communicate in hospital. In person, but also on the phone when things need to happen quickly. Wherever there are language barriers to overcome, wherever we can help, even at short notice, even at four in the morning.

SC: So language services are basically life support.

BB: Yes, exactly. Generally speaking, our motto is “We never refuse to help”. There really is always a solution. When things have to happen at very short notice, it is sometimes just a question of cost. And enthusiasm. That is what we work for, both as people and for people.

SC: That leads us nicely into our next topic. Because recently, the human element has often been called into question and the use of artificial intelligence has been a defining issue for some time. In the world of translation, people are discussing machine systems such as DeepL, and in text production, ChatGPT or more recently Google Bard. Is this also an issue in interpreting? Where do you think this leaves human interpreters?

BB: AI is certainly also an issue in interpreting. For example, when a platform like Zoom buys an AI startup to improve simultaneous translation in video meetings. But this kind of AI then only creates subtitles and transcribes. And who is going to read that? Speech is the crucial medium for being able to listen. No one reads the subtitles for an entire workshop. Not even if they turn out to be unintentionally funny because they were generated automatically.

It becomes even clearer when it comes to the content: interpreting means not only translating the text, but also communicating the context, including the emotions and everything that goes with it. No AI can do that at the moment.

“Interpreting means not only translating the text, but also the context – including everything that goes with it.”

SC: So what tasks will algorithms and machines perform or be able to perform?

BB: The routine tasks, I think, and the basics. Short meetings of an informal nature can be held with subtitles. In the foreseeable future, there will certainly be AI language applications that will be used for non-complex things or for record-keeping purposes. But the situation is different for complex applications, subjects and events. AI will not be able to handle medical workshops, C-level information events, negotiations or even termination interviews, even in the long term. When things get complex, people who are familiar with what is going on will still be needed.

SC: In what direction do you think interpreting is heading and what will be the next stages?

BB: The current stage is clearly going back to personal contact. After the pandemic, everyone is delighted to be able to meet one another in person again and wants to do as much live and face-to-face as possible. Hardly anyone wants purely digital events any more – hybrid events will be the future.

Of course, not everything works completely in live mode and of course we are all now aware of the digital benefits. Everyone now takes hybrid formats for granted and they are definitely here to stay.

SC: What do you think interpreting will look like in five years’ time?

BB: We can’t really say at the moment what the situation will be in five or even ten years’ time. Ten years ago, hardly anyone could have imagined what we are able to do today – and now we do it as a matter of course. People who are growing up now don’t know any different. By then, the digital world will certainly be spinning further and faster. I think you can compare it a bit with machine translation.

SC: Do you have a vision of interpreting and, if so, what does it look like?

BB: My own vision, if you want to call it that, already exists in that we are already a special agency and make extraordinary things possible. In the future, however, the issue of sustainability must and will become even more important. It is already clear today, for example, that you no longer have to jet around the world for every project. But there’s more to it than that.

The same applies to the issue of partnership, i.e. the way we work with clients and also with partner agencies. As far as our clients are concerned, we don’t work for everyone and with everyone. There are a lot of things for which we will go the extra mile and we do so because we are fully committed to them. We don’t do things that we don’t consider justifiable. It has to fit – and we make a lot of adjustments to make it fit.

With our partner agencies, the vision is to focus even more on cooperation and dialogue. In other words, to cooperate even more with those who share our values and standards and take a similar approach to us.

SC: And what would you specifically like to see from our partnership?

BB: That’s an excellent example: we have a really good working relationship. Always competent and friendly, helpful, on an equal footing – no matter which of you we work with, it’s always genuine. We share the same quality standard and also the ‘caring gene’. And a long-term partnership is important to both of us so we can each have complete confidence in the other.

SC: Then thank you for the interview – it’s been great working with you so far! To be continued, I would say (laughs). We’re looking forward to it.

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