PROFILE

Ewandro Magalhães
The interpreting industry in flux

interview By andrew warner

HOMETOWN
Belo Horizonte, Brazil

UNIVERSITY
University of Brasília, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

FIRST INTERPRETED FOR
The Speaker of the House of the Brazilian Parliament and Prince Philip

FUN FACT
Undergraduate degree in health and physical education — before working in language services, Ewandro was a swim teacher

Ewandro Magalhães has been around the block. Within the field of interpreting, his name pops up a lot — just ask his LinkedIn following of nearly 35,000. Magalhães has created all sorts of content on interpreting — from books and magazine columns to TED talks — in an effort to shine light on a profession that often goes unnoticed. In doing all of this, he says he’s “made an invisible profession slightly more visible” to the outside world, becoming a top voice in the industry.

It’s not all talk, either — he’s got the career credentials and know-how to back it up. After gigs as a swim teacher and an administrative worker within the Brazilian Parliament, he got his “big break,” so to speak, interpreting for Brazil’s Speaker of the House in conversation with Prince Philip. Yes, that Prince Philip. A few decades later, he served as chief interpreter in the United Nations system and then went on to co-found the interpreting platform KUDO. Earlier this year, he stepped away from KUDO to focus on other pursuits.

“KUDO is a success story I am privileged to have co-founded and led. The technology allowed the largest organizations on the planet to keep their busy schedule of multilingual meetings despite the pandemic. It also extended a lifeline to interpreters and offered 13,000 of them a new online home at a time of crisis,” he said. “I feel particularly proud to have earned their trust in spite of the paradigmatic disruption we were introducing. After seven years, the foundation has been laid, and the baton has now been passed on to a talented team of ‘skippers’ whom I have personally selected, trained, and empowered to lead us forward.”

Most recently, he joined the team at Nimdzi Insights as the company’s global language strategist. In mid-July, we spoke with Magalhães to discuss his more than 30-years-long career, his philosophy on interpreting, and his thoughts on the future of the profession as technological advancements drive change.

Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for clarity and house style.

So you’re currently in Brazil, correct?

In Brasília, the capital.

Is that your hometown?

I’m from Brazil, but a different city — Belo Horizonte. I moved to Brasília, where I currently am, at the age of 6. And I never left until 45 or so, when I went to another country. And I’ve been abroad for the last 17 years or so.

I left Brazil because I had been an interpreter for 15 years, but I didn’t have a degree (in interpreting). I was training interpreters, I had written a book on it, but I didn’t have a degree. So I decided to put everything on hold and go to the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where I got a master’s degree in interpretation.

I put my career on hold, went to California with my family, and stayed in the area for about a year. The idea was, “OK, I’ll get this degree and I’ll come back to Brazil and start afresh.”

On the very last day of my final exams, they brought observers from the UN, the government of Canada, the European institutions, the State Department, and more. And as I was leaving the room, a State Department rep grabbed me by the arm and said, “Come see me this afternoon. We need to talk.” Then I went to see her and she said, “I liked your test. I want you to go to Washington and test with State.”

So I went to Washington, D.C., took the test there, passed, and then they started giving me contracts for the big summits. And before I knew it, I was in the big league.

And you taught physical education before you made your way into the language industry — how did you make that professional transition?

I had already graduated and I was taking some professional development courses in Rio de Janeiro. In those days –– the mid to late 1980s –– I was very enthusiastic about triathlon. It was a new sport, and there was zero information out there about how to even approach the sport. One colleague had brought along a book from the United States called Triathlon Training and Competition.

I devoured the book. And I said, “Man, this is incredible. We need this information available in Brazil. Perhaps I should try and translate this.”

I had zero experience as a translator. But what I did was I started knocking on doors, put together a project and said, “Hey, this is an interesting book on a new sport. There’s no information about this. There’s a gap. I would like to see this translated.” Of course, I got a lot of rejection letters.

Back then, one of my students was the chief adviser to the president of the University of Brasília, and they had a university press. One day, I was kind of letting off steam and I said, “You know, I’m very disappointed, because I sent a letter to the university press and they totally dismissed me. They said, ‘No, we don’t care about this. This is not right.’” And he said, “You know what? Why don’t you write a letter to the president, and I will hand-deliver it. I’m not promising anything, but he might like it.”

So I wrote a letter to him, again, proposing the idea and speaking of my disappointment. The next day, he brought back that same letter with a note — a handwritten note — from the president saying he loved the idea of publishing this book and to see Professor Such and Such at the university press again.

So eventually, they decided to publish the book, and they needed somebody with enough knowledge of the sport to do the translation. They asked me whether I would do it, and I said I’d be happy to. I had never translated anything, but I’ve always been a very good writer. So I decided to give it a try — my knowledge of English was so-so at the time, but I put a lot of energy into it. I did the best I could.

Not only did they publish the book, but they also liked the translation so much that they started calling me to translate other materials. And I really enjoyed it — it was exhilirating to be able to do that.

So you have a bridge there between sports, through the book, into the world of language. Then there’s another step as to how I came from being a translator to becoming an interpreter, which is also a funny story. 

Tell me about that transition.

I had been a translator for a while by then, and I landed a job as a clerk with the Houses of Parliament in Brazil — I was put in a corner where I was just typing stuff away. It was one of those dream jobs where you can retire with a full pension, the full salary plus 20%.

But I was too young, and the job itself sucked. I started going around and spreading the rumor that I could do more than this — telling people that I spoke French, I spoke Italian. In those days, I spoke a few languages very poorly. But I was shaking those trees and saying, “Hey, I can do more.” And eventually, I transferred to another section in the House, where I was closer to the office of the speaker of the House — but again, doing nonsense work. Pushing paper, administrative stuff, all extremely mind-numbing.

One day, I’m sitting in my office, and my boss calls me in the middle of the afternoon and says, “Ewandro, what are you wearing? Are you wearing a suit?” I said, “Yes. Why do you ask?” He responds, “Come down to the office of the president, I need you here.”

So I show up, not knowing what’s going to be my task. And they say, “Well, we have a guest coming — he only speaks English. You do the translation. Whatever you hear in English, you say in Portuguese.”

In comes Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and the whole entourage. And I’m thinking, “Shoot, what am I going to do?” I was looking for an escape route, right? And my boss just pressed my shoulder on that seat and said, “You got this — relax.” I eventually saw that they had brought their own interpreter, and I tried to point to that, but by then, it was too late.

And that’s how I started. It was about 20 minutes of chit-chat where I did my best not to drown. Basically, I was thrown overboard and I had to swim. I didn’t have a clue as to how well I was doing, frankly. Eventually, the lights went off and they all went their ways and so on. As soon as I left the room, the chief adviser to the speaker of the House said to me, “Where are you located in the House? I want you transferred here tomorrow — I really enjoyed how you did this.”

My knowledge of English was so-so, but it was a lot better than the paper pushing I was doing elsewhere. So I said, “Well, sure — count me in.” That day, I felt this rush of adrenaline from not knowing what to expect, but at the same time, thinking it was fun. It was challenging, a lot better than what I’d been doing. I became the de facto interpreter to the speaker of the House.

Eventually, I got so much satisfaction out of it that I created my own company, my own language service provider (LSP). I was doing a lot of translation on the side and presenting myself to do consecutive interpretation. And in time, I started trying my hand at simultaneous as well, pretty much teaching myself interpreting. That’s how I learned.

What is your perspective on the differences between working as a translator or an interpreter?

The skills are not that different. I’m a dissenting voice in this debate, because you’ve probably heard interpreters get a bit worked up if you call them translators — “We’re not translators, we’re interpreters, and so on.” I don’t think this is a relevant discussion, because there is no interpretation without translation. There’s no translation without interpretation.

It’s impossible for you to competently translate anything without interpreting the meaning behind it. Say I give you a word — you won’t know what to make of that word until I give you context. If I give you context, you interpret that context, and then you know what to do with that word. And the opposite is true. If I’m interpreting and hear a word in Portuguese, and I have to come up with something equivalent in English, I can’t even start unless I know the translation of that word. The two efforts are intertwined. So translation is at the basis of interpretation, there’s no question about that.

Now, the one thing you don’t have when you’re interpreting is the luxury of time. A translator can put a lid on it, read a couple of books, talk to a few people, and realize, “Oh, instead of this, I’m going to use that.” But an interpreter has to come up with something in the heat of the moment right there. It might not be the best possible solution, but it’s the one solution that you can get to, at that point in time. You have that immediacy. That takes a specific emotional skill set — you need to be able to keep your cool, you need to be able to operate under stress.

With interpreting, there’s also the outside pressure that’s put on you — maybe you’re in the room and you’re being televised live, and tomorrow, this is gonna go in the paper. There’s a lot going on and you need to learn how to put yourself in a sort of meditative state where you just channel the message and forget about the rest. That’s a totally different skill set.

What are some particularly memorable or formative moments from your work as an interpreter?

Now, there are stories that everybody asks me about — “Oh, tell me a funny tale,” and so on. And I have a few, but the thing is that I’ve never been in a situation where something happened that stayed that way. Because good interpreting is like good conversation — if you mess up, you find a way of correcting that and then you move on. It’s seldom the case that it becomes such a snafu, a faux pas, that all of a sudden, it makes the news. So you laugh a little bit, but you’re just busy correcting it afterwards.

One thing I felt very proud of doing was more community work, which I did a lot just fresh out of school. There, the result is immediate — when you see a kid receiving food because of something you said or when you see aid flowing to a part of the country that needs that aid desperately. That’s when you realize how much the language barrier can slow things down — when you finally show up in front of a lady who is in pain and trying to communicate something to a hospital crew that has no clue what the lady is saying. Those moments are very touching, because it makes you feel like a real enabler there.

Or when you develop a piece of technology like we did at KUDO, where you all of a sudden extend a lifeline to thousands of interpreters out there during the pandemic, who would otherwise be stranded at home with no income, then you feel like, “OK, if this story is ever told, I’ll see myself in it, because I was there, and I helped make it possible.”

When we were first discussing this piece, my colleague referred to you as “the face” of the interpreting business — do you agree with that sentiment? Why or why not?

No, I can’t be the face of a profession where women outnumber men by a ratio of three to one. But you could say I am a top voice in the industry.

I have made it my mission to help raise awareness about the profession through TED videos, TEDx talks, books, and teachings, and in so doing made an invisible profession slightly more visible.

I have also been privileged to witness — and often cause— significant disruption in the industry. I have openly challenged the status quo in a profession that is so resistant to change. That, I believe, is my most important legacy. But like any trailblazer, I had to venture too far into the woods, and I have the scars to prove it.

Tell me about that piece of technology that you and your team at KUDO developed.

I’m referring to the remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) solution that we brought to market. For the first time you could go in and you could have a meeting like the one we’re having, but I’m speaking English, and there’s a button that allows you to listen to a human interpreter sitting remotely during the session.

Because of the pandemic, everybody was stranded at home — but thanks to that, these colleagues could continue to work. I’m very proud to have been associated with the development of something that had such a huge impact on the lives of so many people. It really revolutionized the way interpreting was delivered.

And then later came the KUDO Marketplace — the marketplace is more like a business solution. Imagine for a moment you are an interpreter sitting in India, and you speak ten different languages. But (before the KUDO Marketplace) you were limited by your ability to travel here and there, and nobody came your way because you were outside of the axis where things happen. Now, you can use your God-given talent to help people communicate. You don’t have to be flying around all day. We can now tap into all that talent. It democratizes access to language by interpreters and clients.

Early on, we thought we were just going to provide the technology, but eventually, you realize you need to bring the service along with it. You then find yourself having to play the role of an LSP, doing a lot of leg work in a way that doesn’t scale. It had to be automated. The KUDO Marketplace created that automation. Interpreters can sign in and get offers for work. And clients can secure interpreters for their meetings with a few clicks of a button. That was another breakthrough, and KUDO is now pursuing the new frontier, which is machine interpreting.

KUDO released its own artificial intelligence (AI) interpreting solution, KUDO AI, at the beginning of this year.

The temptation is to think that now a machine can do any interpreting — but no.

A machine can do whatever is repetitive, say, a sales call that happens every Wednesday, where the script is the same and you can anticipate what the questions are going to be. You can train a machine to do that in ten different languages, and eventually it’s going to do it better than the interpreter that’s showing up for the first time.

It lends itself well to short gigs and anything that’s predictable — even technical stuff. It doesn’t lend itself well to a meeting of the Security Council at the UN, though. You can trigger war if you use the wrong term. You’ve got to proceed with caution.

At least for now, the way I see it, AI should be a tool that’s made available to people who couldn’t otherwise afford the cost of human interpretation. If the choice is between AI interpreting — with all its flaws — and no interpreting, then try AI interpreting. It’s not a question of human interpreters versus AI interpreting. It’s AI interpreting or no interpreting at all. In that scenario, by all means, use the AI solution and let’s see where it takes you.

But for everything else, and for as long as you can, keep the human interpreters in the loop, because there’s now more and more demand for that kind of service and AI is not going to do it with the elegance and warmth of a human, at least not yet. 

 What else do you think people should keep in mind about this technology?

I think we need to consider what interpreters can expect and what businesses can expect from the new technologies and their use cases. Because every company is trying to get a piece of that.

What we need to understand is that AI has only made the whole setup more complex. Let’s say you go to a huge conference where you’re going to spend two weeks, and there are so many breakout sessions in different languages, on different subject matters, and with different audiences. Some are going to be interactive, some are not going to be interactive, some are going to be recorded videos, some are just going to be speeches, and so on. What that means is that one type of interpreter is not going to cut it — you need AI for a few things, you might need captioning for a few more things, you’ll need sign language interpreting. It’s a hybrid situation.

What that calls for is a lot of talent that’s very knowledgeable on the intricacies of multilingual meetings and knowing what to use, what to apply, and when. So it only made it more complex — now it’s going to be a collage of systems that you need to be very mindful of.

For the interpreters — the longer you resist the technology by pointing out its flaws or saying it’s never going to replace us, the faster you’re going to make yourself obsolete. You have to know everything there is to know about this technology, because not only are you going to adapt better to the many tools that are going to be available, but you’re also going to start opening up new avenues for action that are not evident yet.

When the internet came about, nobody thought that one day we would have a professional line of work called YouTuber or content producer or whatever. These are people who were doing something else in the past. But they only made that transition because they immersed themselves in the technology and wanted to see it up close. If you just take the opposite stance, you’re just going to see the train go right on by.

What advice would you give to an interpreter who’s having trouble adapting to the technology, or is hesitant to make use of it?

Technology has always been an intrinsic part of our human urge to communicate. From smoke signals, to drums, to carrier pigeons, to writing to language itself, our ability to sound louder and reach farther, to negotiate and exchange beyond time and space, has always been technology-driven.

Interpretation, as a profession, has historically been slow and reluctant to change. Before RSI, the latest change on record happened during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, when the simultaneous mode of interpreting was introduced. Then, as now, the shift to a new system was fiercely opposed and then gradually accepted and finally, promoted.

The question then becomes: At what point does technology cease being an enabler and become a threat?

The course is changing again, and we are too busy trying to stay in our lane to actually see much of the road ahead. But the rear mirror reassures us that beyond the initial shock, change has always worked to interpreters’ advantage. So, my message regarding AI is: Be wise, be smart, beware but don’t despair. AI may be an opportunity in disguise if you’re paying attention. Whatever you do, don’t dismiss it as another passing fad.

Speaking of adapting to language technology — WIRED recently published a video entitled “Pro Interpreters vs. AI Challenge: Who Translates Faster and Better?” featuring KUDO’s AI interpreting technology and your industry peer Barry Slaughter Olsen — how would you say it represents the state of AI in the field of interpreting?

It is a very informative video, and I want to commend Olsen and Walter Krochmal for agreeing to put themselves to the test against this new technology. I also think KUDO’s AI solution did remarkably well in the specific use cases proposed. The comparison did provide a good glimpse into what AI can do, and it also exposed some of its limitations. That said, pitching humans against machines is not how I see this debate ultimately evolving over time.

In my mind, AI interpreting is not a substitute for human interpreting, but an alternative for when the use of human interpreters is not practical or affordable. As stated before, the choice is not between AI interpreting and human interpreting, but rather between AI interpreting and no interpretation at all.

What considerations do you think LSPs need to make to ensure that they’re using the technology responsibly?

AI interpreting is impressive, no doubt, and it does fix many specific issues. It is not a cure-all, however, and I predict that the hype around it will gradually give room to a hybrid solution that will honor the human warmth we long for when we communicate with others.

In an ideal world, AI will be used to help interpreters, cut corners, drive prices down and margins up. But eventually, after a few mechanical choices, in a metallic voice, you will want to be transferred to a human operator. How many times have you caught yourself yelling to an automated phone answering service: “Can you please get me a human?!” I believe users of interpretation will eventually come to expect as much.

Quality — regardless of how one defines it — will become a pricey commodity, and excellent human interpretation will become a premium service. Scarcity has always driven up prices. Despite appearances, this is a long game. Providers — LSPs included — must be ready to go the distance and privilege AI applications that help humans excel rather than drive them to an untimely extinction.

Andrew Warner is assistant editor and staff writer for MultiLingual Media.

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