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…