Monday, 23 May 2011

ITI Conference 2011 (continued): Insularity, an incomprehensible dialect, T-shirts, and lots more stimulation

Before I expand on the aspects in the title of my second conference blog post, a few words on the venue would be in order. The original, chosen venue in Birmingham due to be provided by Conference Aston was, as it turned out, too close to two student accommodation tower blocks that were to be blown up on the conference Sunday! In response to the demolition plans, ITI had managed to secure exclusive use of the Gallery conference suite on the first floor of the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) instead. Exclusive use meant it allowed for staging multiple parallel sessions. (By the way, the conference also included a number of sessions relevant to interpreters only. Because I exclusively translate and never interpret, I did not attend any of them, and they are therefore not covered in my blog posts.) The Gallery offered excellent facilities and was overall, as everyone agreed, a first-class venue. The NEC as a whole, on the other hand, to me seemed a slightly weird place. I was having a little wander around to get my bearings on the pre-conference evening, only to find out that the NEC was a huge, sprawling, and seemingly deserted complex. In fact, the only places where I could find a bit of bustle in the area surrounding the venue was Birmingham Airport nearby and the various hotels. One of the nice sides of having a little wander around: I bumped into, made friends with and walked back to the hotel with another translator who had had the same idea of having a dry run!

This leads me to another popular part of the weekend: the conference fringe with plenty of opportunities for socialising and networking. Like a lot of other conference attendees, I was staying at the Ramada NEC. The Ramada also was the setting for a relaxed and friendly dinner as part of an informal pre-conference get-together on the Friday evening.

I am now going to provide a round-up of two particularly stimulating conference sessions:

Betti Moser and Isabel Hurtado de Mendoza’s practical workshop aimed at the bottom line that working alone does not mean that we can develop an insular mentality. No freelance translator is an island. Human interaction plays an important part in our lives as well, especially in our relationships with our TC or direct clients, project managers, colleagues, revisers, accountants, family members, childminders or others. The following metaphor had been chosen for the conference programme: We cannot just raise the drawbridge and lower the portcullis when the odd bit of interaction looms! The workshop also addressed a number of awkward or difficult-to-handle situations that can come up in a freelance translator’s work life, including: ways of approaching group translation projects; criticism management; handling dubious job offers; midway cancellations of projects; being asked to carry out free test translations; etc. Betti and Isabel had put a lot of thought and preparation into the workshop. Being practising translators themselves, they were well placed to offer knowledgeable input.

Jonathan Downie’s presentation was about the extraordinary story of his recruitment as the world’s first interpreter of Glaswegian to assist business clients baffled by the local dialect. It sparked an avalanche of media attention and put him high up Google rankings. The title "Maw, Ah’m Oan the Telly!" in Glaswegian, incomprehensible to me and probably a few others as well, was without doubt an excellent hook for the presentation. Have I whetted your appetite? To read the full story see the relevant BBC article at or simply google "Glaswegian interpreter". (By the way, it would not surprise me at all if one day a similar story hit the headlines in the region in Germany where I come from. Readers of this article who are familiar with the Central Franconian dialect will know what I am talking about.) Jonathan went on to share his lessons learnt from the experience: Opportunities can come from anywhere. This means you can make yourself known without having to spend thousands. Jonathan also probably posed the biggest challenge of the whole conference for anyone to take away and have a good think about: What is it that makes YOU special so that it would fit on a T-shirt? What is your USP? Jonathan recommended presenting this USP in the best possible way.

To conclude, I totally agree with Mike Hanson, a French to English translator, who says: “I found it a very sociable and stimulating conference. I really enjoy going to ITI conferences and other events − it gets you out of the office and reminds you that you are a professional doing a real job, and there are plenty of colleagues out there doing exactly the same. You also catch up with colleagues who you may not have seen for years, as well as meeting new ones!”

Saturday, 14 May 2011

"Expanding Horizons": ITI Conference 2011

The ITI’s 25th Anniversary Conference, which was held over the weekend of 8th and 9th May at the NEC Gallery in Birmingham, promised a wide range of topics and speakers and a fabulous opportunity to hear about the latest trends, ideas and techniques across the translation and interpreting professions. But did it live up to this promise? I very much believe it did. "Expanding Horizons" was a very apt conference title indeed as the conference set out to broaden participants' horizons in terms of, for example, what makes a truly professional, committed and sought-after translator. In many respects it also addressed the question: how do we as translators build and maintain the image that we want to convey?

As for new trends, there were, unsurprisingly, several references to machine translation (MT). Machine translation, as is clear to anyone inside and outside the sphere of translation, is gaining more and more ground; at the same time, it is also clear that human translators will never be outdone by MT. Terry Oliver, in his talk on the upsides and downsides of translators being human, highlighted a number of qualities that human translators typically bring to the job: they possess language skills; they are able to consider the wider context; they can make associations; they are capable of lateral thinking; they read between the lines; they spot errors; etc. They are, to add my two cents, the most prominent reasons why machines will never replace humans. I think that these qualities should be part of our response to the widespread "I-can’t-believe-you-have-just-told-me-you-earn-a-living-being-a-translator-when-there-can’t-be-a-demand-for-this-I-mean-with-everything-that-computers-can-do-nowadays" attitude. Several more hints on how to benefit and ultimately prosper in light of the rising importance of MT were also available over the course of the weekend.

Nicholas Ostler, in the conference keynote speech on the topic "English: The Last Lingua Franca?", even floated the question of whether MT is capable of disrupting our whole world language system. In future, interlingual contacts will presumably no longer be through traditional intermediaries. Nicholas touched on the likely decline of the phenomenon of "native-speakerism", and he envisages World English possibly turning into a sort of "Wimbledonized English", to draw on a metaphor popular in the financial world. To use a sentence from the conference programme, which featured in the keynote speech conclusion: Will the fall of English as a shared language of communication be followed, not by the dominance of another, stronger tongue, but by a return to Babel in which technology rather than human language facilitates communication?

Other noteworthy trends addressed at the conference were those subject areas most in demand at the moment, as outlined by Sarah Griffin-Mason. According to recent figures, technology, medicine, and marketing, in that order, are the areas where most translation work is currently placed. Tourism also is on the rise as tourism industry members have become aware of the importance of how they present themselves to potential customers.

I also gleaned from the speaker/audience comments that the traditional role of the translator is undergoing change. It seems that in the future, translators, much more than ever before, will be regarded as writing experts, style professionals, or language consultants. Jonathan Downie emphasised that translators have to be excellent communicators. (More on his presentation to follow.) I feel that target language competence will more and more be viewed as the essential skill that a translator will have to bring to the job. And while certainly not a new trend, an indispensable part of the changing translation environment that was nicely put in the conference programme: Gone are the days of working alone at home or at the back of the garden, hunched over a typewriter or a word processor. The Internet is here to stay and be part of our lives. We now work and live on the web.

My disappointment about Richard Delaney not being able to lead the session on "Translating Legislation" was quickly outweighed by the announcement that Chris Durban would step in. She seized this opportunity to present her eye-opening study for which, taking on the role of a mystery shopper, she commissioned a number of translations from various translation companies and also looked at the result produced by Google Translate. Chris advocates, as she puts it, acknowledging maternity or paternity for your work; in other words, ideally you should sign your work. As LSPs we’re in for the long haul; there simply are no quick fixes. For an interesting read of her experiment, see Betti Moser’s blog post at

This inevitably leads to the issue of quality in translation. Ensuring such quality is, first and foremost, about constantly fine-tuning and improving the style of your target language. Sarah Griffin-Mason's advice on how to achieve this was valid and simple: Read, read, read, read, read, read, read and write. Or, as an alternative, use search engines in a sophisticated manner. This, by the way, linked in with Andy Walker’s practical presentation on "Better Web Searching for Translators". He explained how to find and check (sometimes obscure) terminology and locate background information on the internet by illustrating the huge variety of Google search operators. I, for one, took away a lot of new knowledge from his presentation. Quality in translation work can also shine through in other ways. According to Chris Durban, putting meaningful questions, if necessary, to the client is a sign of quality and commitment. I agree this should be a habit for whenever ambiguities or obscurities arise in the source text.

When I started out, my experienced fellow colleagues who acted as mentors explained that the language product that translators sell to clients, rather than anything else, is this: a language solution. This solution should be seen as something tailored to the client's needs. I admit I initially found it hard to reconcile myself with thinking along those lines. But, over the years, that idea has helped me tremendously in creating my language products. The fact that clients wish to be provided with a source of language solutions was also put forward by Terry Oliver. This goes hand in hand with the notion of "seeing things through the client’s eyes", as he put it. Terry remarked that the Germans refer to this as "Mitdenken"; he noted there is no proper English equivalent for this term. It is what clients appreciate and what they are willing to pay for. Relationships with clients ultimately stand or fall based on communication, respect and trust.

More on the ITI Conference to follow…