LanguageLoop CEO and Translations Manager on Language Services in Australia – Slator

LanguageLoop CEO and Translations Manager on Language Services in Australia

Elizabeth Compton, CEO of LanguageLoop, and Claire Mullins, National Translations Manager at the Australian language service provider (LSP), join SlatorPod to talk about the company’s digital and organizational transformation over the past decade.

Elizabeth recalls the LSP’s early days from 1978, and the decision to rebrand to LanguageLoop. She touches on the role of the Victorian State Government as shareholder and how the company balances being commercially viable versus being owned by the government.

She shares the impact of the pandemic as they saw an immediate shift from on-site to remote interpreting, as well as accelerating the digital delivery of language services. Claire talks about how Covid drove the conversation around multilingual engagement from both government and corporate clients.

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Claire also weighs in on the impact of immigration and the resulting increase in demand for rare and emerging languages, as well as multilingual consumer behaviors in Australia. The pod ends with their collective outlook, as the LSP plans to leverage tech and build deeper customer engagement with the launch of multilingual SMS campaigns.

Florian and Esther discuss the language industry news of the week, with TikTok being issued a USD 0.88m fine by the Dutch Data Protection Authority. The agency said the popular app violated the privacy of young children by not translating its privacy statement into Dutch.

Florian shares results from the European SME survey, which gathered the opinions of over 1,000 SMEs on website localization and machine translation use.

Esther talks about the recent launch of an estimated USD 47m interpreting framework agreement by Norway’s Labor and Welfare Authority (NAV), an organization with nearly 300 regional offices that help immigrants integrate into Norwegian life.

The duo share news from outside Europe as social distancing requirements in Los Angeles County end and court interpreters are recalled to on-site work. In response, the California Federation of Interpreters is lobbying for reconsideration in light of the upsurge in Covid cases and the emergence of the Delta variant.

Transcript

Florian: Elizabeth, you joined the business in 2016, and you had an international career before in business with Goldman Sachs and some other companies. What attracted you to this particular challenge in this industry? How did you end up in the language industry?

Elizabeth: I was overseas for the best part of a decade working in Europe and the US and in executive and leadership roles, so that was in corporate affairs, strategic planning, sales, and marketing. As you highlighted, a number of years were with Goldman Sachs so financial services, automotive, a number of different sectors. I came back to Australia and worked in government roles and then when I saw this role, all I saw was potential when I researched LanguageLoop or as it was known then, VITs. If I looked back at my experience overseas across different sectors, and also here in Australia in government, I knew that it could be so much more than it was at that point in time. I was just incredibly excited. The balance of an organization that has such incredible purpose and importance in terms of the service that we deliver back to non-English speakers, helping them to participate in society and giving a voice to people to settle in Australia. Also, we are a commercial entity, so bringing that real business side and growth mindset to the organization as well. It was that combination of things that attracted me to the role. 

Florian: Claire, tell us a bit more about your background. How did you get involved with the language industry?

Claire: My pathway to the language services industry took more of a traditional route than Elizabeth’s. I am originally from Ireland. I graduated from Dublin City University with a Bachelor of Arts in Translation and Interpreting Studies and directly after graduating I worked as a Technical German Translator for a multinational German software company, so it was a brilliant first step into the industry. I had the opportunity to work with their proprietary machine translation engine, so this was back in 2004 when machine translation was in its infancy, in terms of broad application from a professional perspective. I was also involved in training some of our German LSPs that we out-sourced a lot of content to as well. Then I decided to move to Australia to backpack for a year and 12 years later, I am still here, where I have moved into a management position. I started out in project management, firstly, and then moved into program management and to my role here at LanguageLoop, which is Head of the Translations Department.

Esther: Elizabeth, you mentioned the name change of the organization from Victorian Interpreting and Translation Service or VITS to LanguageLoop. Can you tell us a bit more about the origin story of the company and the decision to rebrand?

Elizabeth: We were established back in the late 1970s. The government realized and knew that it had a very important role to play in access and equity for newly arrived migrants and refugees back in the late seventies. We were established on that foundation and core values of access and equity. We were very much focused in those days on providing on-site interpreting services within government, whether that be in the health system, the legal system, or education. Over the years, and certainly, in the last 10 years, we transformed who we are and how we operate. Always with that core around access and equity and making sure that we are delivering an absolute seamless service to our government clients and non-English speakers accessing those government services, but we have also grown. 

We now deliver language services for very large multinational companies and also in the not-for-profit and community sectors. We are very much a different organization but with that same core. We had the name, the Victorian Interpreting and Translation Service, it did not represent who we were so we wanted to make sure that we had an identity and a brand that represented our national footprint and that we offer digital service as well. We have been through a digital transformation and organizational transformation, looking at that end-to-end customer journey, or if you are a patient in a health system, the patient’s journey as well. It was about making sure that we had a brand that reflected the true sort of scale and scope of who we are and what we do.

Florian: Elizabeth, tell us a bit more about the work with your government stakeholders, how do you interact with them? How do you report to them or do they report to you?

Elizabeth: It is like any shareholder, it just happens that our shareholder is the Victoria State Government, so we report quarterly to the Department of Treasury and Finance and also to the Minister for Multicultural Affairs. We have those dual reporting lines and it is not that different. What makes us different is being that very interesting breed between a commercial entity, but also owned by the government. We are very much supported by the Victoria State Government in terms of policy and direction but we do not appropriate any funds from the government so we are completely self-funded. In fact, we pay a dividend back to the government just like a commercial entity would pay dividends back to shareholders.

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Esther: In a nutshell, what is LanguageLoop’s core offering? What do you think are some of the most important client segments that you serve? 

Elizabeth: We have got clear client segments, so government, that is both Victoria State Government and Federal Government, commercial entities, so that is large financial institutions, insurers, utilities, and the third segment would be in not-for-profit and community sectors. We service all three sectors and we have been growing all three, certainly over the last five to 10 years. Something that makes us a little bit different is that we cover on-site interpreting, telephone interpreting, video interpreting, all kinds of translation services, and digital services. We also cover 34 indigenous languages, braille, Australian sign language, and we deliver those services pretty much across any channel and any touchpoint or however a customer or patient wants to interact with a government service or a commercial entity. We facilitate that across those key government, commercial and not-for-profit and community sectors.

Esther: Is there any international component to LanguageLoop’s business?

Claire: To date, our focus has been on the domestic market and we see that there continues to be a huge demand from our local contracts, specifically across government. I guess one of the buzzwords of the past 18 months has been Covid-19 and in Australia, we have seen that has accelerated the conversation around multilingual engagement with much more inclusive public information campaigns. Not only the government, but businesses now are realizing the importance of engaging with their customers in other languages, and the ability to engage with their customers on a deeper level and to gain those business insights that we can give them through our language services.

Florian: What are some of the key drivers for translation, localization, and interpreting services, from your view, but also the broader view?

Claire: The first thing to note is that Australia is not a hugely multicultural country. Around 23% of Australian citizens speak a language other than English at home, and it continues to be built on these waves of immigration. Historically, demand has been driven by government policy and the importance of allowing any person in Australia to access critical health services and educational services. This facilitates pathways to integration so it is a critical first point to a more cohesive country. We are beginning to see that commercial entities are also trying to engage with their customers by adding language services support for their products and services. They are able to gain a competitive advantage there. 

Interestingly enough, we conducted some research recently into multilingual consumer behaviors in Australia. Our research was modeled quite closely on CSA Research’s very famous, very used “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy” survey that they run every couple of years. We found that if a product or a service was offered in another language, 74% of multilingual Australians would buy more services or products from that business. 90% would recommend that business to a friend or family member and 74% would be a lot more loyal to that business. That is a big commercial and business driver for many of the organizations that we are servicing at the moment.

Florian: Is this overwhelmingly first-generation immigrants or would it also go into the second generation? In Australia, what are the dynamics?

Claire: We have got such a broad client base, so for example, if you are servicing an old age facility, you are going to be offering services to those first-generation Australians who still struggle sometimes with the English language. We are also seeing highly educated migrants coming into Australia who are very proficient in the English language but still need to integrate and use digital services in their own languages. They might very well be able to interact in English, but it is just a preference to be able to have that additional support or information available in your language.

Esther: Thinking about the different customer bases, what would you say are some of the key differences between your private sector and public sector clients? Are there any dynamics or any things that stick out as being very different from one another?

Elizabeth: Claire and I were talking about our client base, and we came to the conclusion that there has definitely been a convergence of needs and wants from both those client bases. It is very clear that both now want absolutely high-quality services, that goes without saying, cost-effective, transparent. We generally gain most of our work through a procurement process or a tender process. Quality is really high, so we have to dial up and demonstrate how we deliver an incredibly high-quality outcome, and with that comes very strong expectations around account management and customer service. 

What we have seen, in the last two to three years, is a strong push for insight into data. When you see the great growth in big data and data analytics, our clients want that insight from their multilingual and multicultural customer base. It is not just about saying, here is a report of your top 20 languages and the demand. Instead, what are the consumer preferences? How can we more deeply engage with our customer base? How can we deliver better service to our multilingual clients, patients, and customers? There has been a convergence over the last few years around that absolute quality, but cost-effective with the overlay of data and insight as well. 

Florian: How do you integrate all these emerging and already emerged machine translation services into your day-to-day processes? What are some of the key challenges on the translation side? 

Claire: On the translation side, it certainly has been a challenge. Coming from a European background and working for a multinational organization, which based its growth and expansion on the provision of language services, it was interesting to see how far behind in terms of technology Australia was at that time. When I started at LanguageLoop, the major focus on the business was on the interpreting side and certainly, it is still a large portion that represents about 80% of the business, but translations remained quite underdeveloped in many respects. One of my key initiatives was to look at the technology aspect, so part of what I did was to scope out a translation management system, as there were no tools whatsoever, no CAT tools, certainly no machine translation. Only in the past two years have we integrated the translation management system into our everyday workflow processes and that integrates into our core language booking system. 

About the difficulties with the languages, a huge part of that was the training and development of our language professionals, our translators, many of whom had never worked with technology in the past and so we had to develop quite a comprehensive training program. Starting with the very basics about how to log into a system, what a CAT tool is, working within an editor, what top termbases are. In the two years since we developed it, the translators have embraced it and see it as a tool for a much more efficient way of working. It has been a success in that way, but certainly, there still are issues directly within the system with not supporting some fonts, for example, or not supporting some of the rarer languages. We had a request for Dzongkha today, which is the language of Bhutan. Certainly not a language that is supported directly within the system that we are using. On the whole, it is great to see how it is being embraced and how it is revolutionized the way we work.

Esther: How about on the interpreting side? Especially in the past 18 months, obviously, a lot has changed because of the pandemic. How has that impacted the way that you deliver interpreting? How did you experience that shift to remote working?

Elizabeth: Around the world, we have seen that immediate shift and acceleration of digital delivery of services, so obviously there has been a huge shift from on-site to remote interpreting and the pickup of digital services as well. Given the vastness of our country, for many years we have had remote interpreting, but given our geography, it still has been a bit of a struggle. Especially in health settings with clinicians using video interpreting or even telephone interpreting, there was that routine of having an on-site interpreter. As we have seen globally, there is nothing like a bit of necessity to push people forward. We have seen a very rapid shift and acceleration to the use of an on-demand video interpreting app. We also have a process where we are technology agnostic around whatever platform our clients are using for video. We can integrate with that as well. 

We are in a pretty good position. For example, a few years ago, at the last Australian federal election, we had our video interpreting platform in polling stations around the country, so people who did not speak English or needed assistance could tap into our video interpreting platform. It was an incredibly accessible voting experience. We have seen that huge growth in telephone and video interpreting and we do not think we will ever fully go back to the volumes of on-site interpreting that we had pre-Covid. There has been a shift and that shift is here to stay. Although, always in very critical health or legal settings an onsite interpreter will be required and will be a necessity and for longer form interpreting assignments. Definitely that shift to digital deliveries and remote delivery is here to stay.

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Esther: When you are thinking about the on-demand video component, what are some of the key challenges from a linguistic or process perspective that make on-demand video interpreting more challenging compared with over the phone interpreting?

Elizabeth: In Australia, we cover 180 odd languages, including indigenous languages, so it is a huge volume of different languages to cover. You need the client size demand, you also need the supply, so it is just getting to those right levels where you have got a balance as we do now in telephone interpreting. We have built into our system what we call ASAP functionality so that connects our customer with an interpreter within 30 minutes. It is not quite immediate, but when you are covering your top languages and you have got a huge tail of languages, that has helped fulfill those assignments. Also, we can tap into interpreters around the country as well, which helps. Whenever you are going to market with a new service, there are always going to be challenges and they are some of the ones that we have experienced, but there is always a solution that we are working on. We work with over 3000 interpreters so it is just a process of getting them on board, getting them used to the technology and making the interaction as seamless as possible.

Florian: What are some of the top target languages that you interpret and have they shifted over the past five, 10 years or has it been steady? 

Elizabeth: Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Arabic are certainly the top three and we have got some of the older post-World War II migration languages. Italian would be a key one and Greek. We have seen new migrant waves from parts of Africa. Even though the volumes are still relatively small, we have certainly seen an increase in some of those African languages and Asian languages. 

Claire: Mandarin and Cantonese are in the top 10 languages. It is interesting for us to see those changing growths of communities and having a child and the child is going through the educational system. We are servicing so many different areas of government services, we see that shift from the older languages Italian and Greek to Burmese and dialects like Karen, Karenni. We also see the impact of the international, political scene where we have got recent arrivals, like Rohingya communities who also need language services when they get here. It is very interesting for us to have such a broad customer base and such different client types that we see the differences in the language need and demand.

Florian: Is there a difference in terms of approach to interpreting in court, police, immigration, or health care settings? Do you train differently or do you have a one size fits all training model? 

Claire: It is certainly not a one size fits all training approach. Most of the interpreters that we would onboard would typically have either gone through an undergrad or a master’s level. One of the basic entry requirements here is having a NAATI certification. NAATI is the National Accreditation Association for Translators and Interpreters, so that is a basic level and in the past few years, NAATI has completely overhauled their certification system. The translators and interpreters will get either a specialization in a particular area or just a generalist NAATI qualification. You will have those tiered levels of service and qualification. In terms of delivering the service, we do see the difference between that high-level court or hospital specialization that would be needed, where you have got the traditional conveying of one speech in one language to another. 

Whereas, in those more community settings or in the rare and emerging languages, we certainly see more facilitation where there is an explanation of concepts that are new to the community that does not have a direct translation that you would have in a more technical, specialized setting. We certainly see that in our telephone interpreting service as well. We have an annual innovation fund, which is 150,000 that we funnel into research, into different aspects of language services. One of the programs that we are funding at the moment is research into telephone interpreting standards and guidelines. There is much more facilitation, that is due in part to the breadth of languages that we serve, but also that lack of visibility of visual cues. It is much more facilitation rather than direct interpreting that we would traditionally know.

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Esther: Do you have any other examples of research initiatives or what it is led to in the past few years?

Elizabeth: It goes back to who we are, given that we are owned by the government, we have more of an emphasis on giving back to the sector and so our fund is a part of that. We have done research in telephone interpreting, interpreting in mental health settings, simultaneous interpreting in courts and we are currently running a mentorship program in court settings. Taking those interpreters from rare and emerging languages and pairing them with a higher volume interpreter with more experience and high-level NAATI qualification. 

Probably the most innovative is a research project at the moment with Monash University. That is a virtual reality training program for preparing interpreters to work in family violence settings, and as you can imagine, that is probably one of the most complex, intense assignments that you could be a part of. It is about trying to prepare interpreters as best we can in those incredibly challenging environments. It is a fully immersive training experience before they have set foot in a court or a hospital, or potentially even in the middle of the night into a home visit where you have potentially got police, the perpetrator, children, the individual who requires an interpreter. An incredibly complex situation that you are navigating, let alone the interpreting that you then have to undertake. It will be launched later in the year and that would just be the first module, a family violence immersive training experience. Then we will take it from there and develop other modules on the back of that.

Florian: What is the outlook for the next two to three years? Let us say we get past Covid, things are opening up, how do you see your company developing?

Claire: From a translation point of view, we are only going to leverage our technology more and more so we are certainly working closely with our customers now to enable integrations into their content management systems. That is happening for us now, so that is certainly where I am going to be taking the translations department to. Almost acting as that consultant as well for our customers. It is not just being a language services provider, you are becoming a partner, you are consulting them on the entire customer journey, looking at what they need, what their outcomes are and what they want to achieve. We launched our multilingual SMS technology this year, so we will also be looking to develop that technology a bit further to assist our customers with their multilingual SMS campaigns and reaching their customers in another way.

Elizabeth: The Victorian government here has a huge focus on language services so we will continue growing within the government and trying to provide an even more effective and efficient service. There are board policy instruments that are driving us to continue delivering a more high-quality service with those insights that we spoke about earlier. Definitely, on the commercial side, there is a huge opportunity, so we have identified sectors that we are not currently in that we want to go after and grow. Coming from that perspective of the customer top touchpoint, all the lingo is about personalization and delighting the customer. 

26% of Australians speak a language other than English, 49% of us were either born overseas or have a parent born overseas. If you are still communicating only in English you are just missing a huge opportunity to build that deeper engagement. As you know, marketing costs are huge, the cost of churn, when customers just move from one utility or financial services to the next, that has a huge cost to the entity. It is about bringing that awareness of the benefit of communicating in languages and if you are only communicating in English, you are missing a huge opportunity. We are positioning ourselves to drive that growth and leverage those opportunities.