Well met in San Sebastián: my bird’s eye view of METM22

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View of the bay

It’s just over a week and a half since I returned from the excellent METM22 Conference in San Sebastián (Donostia is the Basque name) in Northern Spain. Unfortunately, I brought home one more souvenir than I’d anticipated in the shape of Covid, so it’s taken me a while to feel anything like human enough to write up my experiences. Ho hum, one of the downsides of friends and colleagues meeting up together from all over Europe (and indeed the world) after two years of keeping ourselves to ourselves. No regrets: the conference was great and it was so lovely to see everyone and talk shop after such a long absence.

I’d attended my first METM event three (!) years earlier, in Split in September 2019 and thoroughly enjoyed the different vibe. METM conferences tend to be smaller than your average translation conference; this year’s was restricted to 150 attendees, compared with nearly twice that number at the ITI Conference in Brighton earlier in the year, and the 1,200 or so who attended the annual ATA Conference on the other side of the pond at the same time as MET. Despite San Sebastián being a renowned foodie destination, I’d already resigned myself to not attending this potential gastronomic delight when the venue was revealed at the end of the Split event; October 2020 was also the year that the ATA Conference was due to be in Boston, Massachusetts and with my son living close by, it was a no-brainer for me to attend another ATA event after enjoying the experience in San Francisco so much back in 2016. When it came down to it, of course, neither went ahead: Covid made its deadly appearance back in March 2020 and stymied face-to-face conferences across the globe for the next two years.

Group photo

When it was announced that San Sebastian was back on the agenda this autumn, I knew I’d have to get my skates on to make sure I got a place. Joining the Mediterranean Editors & Translators (MET) beforehand is a must as tickets sell like hot cakes and, sure enough, the tickets sold out in a week, before they even went on sale to non-members. There was a waiting list and, in this strangest of years, with Covid infections still rife, many of the people on the waiting list did in fact get places, albeit at the last minute, but that’s by no means guaranteed.

Olarain

So what’s so special about these events? The venue is always a draw of course: unsurprisingly, with a name like the Mediterranean Editors and Translators, they are usually based in attractive cities around the Mediterranean basin. I also like the focus on editing just as much as translation, offering scope for sessions on different aspects of language and how it works. There are usually a range of workshops before the main event too, which you can attend or not as you please. Most of all, though, I think that METM conferences are just as much about the off-Met activities as what’s actually on the programme: formal and informal networking is what they’re all about.

Culinary workshop

I’d initially missed out on Mike Farrell’s “Cooking up the right words: hints, tips and tricks for successful food translation” workshop when I first registered but was lucky enough to get a place from the waiting list a couple of weeks before the event. Those who know me (especially as founder of Foodie Translators), won’t be at all surprised to read that this was just up my street! The three hours simply flew by with lots of fascinating anecdotes from Mike and an in-depth analysis of food and menus, with the emphasis on Italian cuisine. In fact, we were having so much fun that we didn’t get through half the prepared slides and I very much hope that Part 2 of the session will continue next year (in Mantua in Italy, rather fittingly). If so, I very much hope that this year’s workshop attendees will get priority booking to pick up where we left off….. Mike’s top tip (and one I use all the time) was to always check supermarket websites if you’re not sure about the latest names for food, especially if you no longer live in your target country. Foodie trends are changing all the time and you might be surprised to find that those esoteric pasta names are actually used in Waitrose nowadays (strozzapreti, anyone? Or maybe you’d rather go with priest stranglers?!).

In the meantime, I’d also registered for “Human nutrition and climate change: a knowledge update for language professionals” presented by Carolina Rojido, on the Thursday afternoon. While the content was interesting, the choice of room, lighting conditions and sound quality sometimes made this hard to follow, not helped by too much detail on the slides. The upshot of the talk was, of course, that we should all be eating less meat, or as Carolina summed up using Michael Pollan’s words at the end: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” My philosophy entirely.

Other sessions I particularly enjoyed were Friday’s keynote speech by the engaging Jon Andoni Duñabeitia on “A look inside the multilingual mind: how words and contexts interact as we understand and produce language”. He asked whether bilingual or even multilingual people have the same personality when we speak our native language and our other language(s) and whether it matters that we sometimes mix up words across our languages or only know some words in certain languages. (Short answer, no!). This was an absolutely fascinating talk that left us wanting more.

Poetry

On the Saturday programme, I very much enjoyed Courtney Greenlaw and Elizabeth Garrison’s presentation on “Tech, fantasy and the human factor in the time of Covid” about translating a fantasy novel across the continents under Covid and language constraints without ever managing to meet up in person. It was a genuinely entertaining account of a challenging project and the US/UK divide made it particularly relevant for me. The American author’s horrified rejection of ‘gobsmacked’ as a British English translation for one particular Italian concept was particularly amusing. Sadly, we never did find out what they used instead though ….

The French-to-English snippet slam led by Séverine Watson and Louise Normandière was another excellent session. I’m sure we’ve all attended a full-blown translation slam by now, where selected translators compare their version of a text paragraph by paragraph. The snippet slam is a speed-dating take on a conventional slam, where the audience form small groups and have a matter of minutes to thrash out a decent translation of several particularly arcane examples of French waffle. It’s amazing what a bit of brainstorming can do – and how the end results, even after a very short time, were often so much better than what we’d come up with individually at the outset. Chapeau to all involved!

Conversation with Sally

Last but not least of my top-rated sessions was the closing conversation between MET’s Helen Oclee-Brown and Sally Orson-Jones, literary editor extraordinaire and ‘book doctor’, as she calls herself. As editor for novelist Sarah Waters and others, this was a funny and enthralling account of how she realised she had a knack for knocking others’ work into shape and her life in this business. I don’t think any of us wanted it to stop, despite the lateness of the hour and the impending gala dinner in town.

Tamarisks

So much for the sessions proper. As I hinted before, though, there’s a great deal more to MET than the programme itself. From after-dinner welcome drinks on Wednesday night for early arrivals, gradually bumping into each other at pintxo venues across the town as the witching hour approached, to the city walking tours laid on throughout Thursday and Friday with an excellent local guide. He did his best to introduce us to some basic Basque (although there was also a Basque class at the venue for those who’d signed up promptly), but the only thing that stuck in my brain was Eskerrik asko (Thank you) and only then because he gave us a neat mnemonic for remembering it: think scary + casco (Spanish for helmet apparently!). It worked for some reason, although my O’level Spanish from over 40 years ago certainly hadn’t included the Spanish for helmet – but the French is close enough! I wondered if it was a coincidence that this was similar to the Greek for the same word: efcharistó? Isn’t language wonderful?!

Magic numbers

It turns out that the old town isn’t actually particularly old as much of it was destroyed in the Peninsular War, but we had a delightful tour of the reconstructed old part, including the square with the clever mathematical trick (so satisfying: the numbers on the top and bottom rows of windows, when added together and divided by two, come to the numbers in the middle – neat!) and the lovely Belle Epoque buildings that date back to the town’s connections with Spanish royalty. He even took us down into the underground car park beneath the main Boulevard to show us the ancient town walls, preserved for posterity amidst the modern cars.

Escanciar

Thursday night saw a choice of Off-METM dinners with a range of themes, but I plumped for the Basque dinner at a local cider house, including an introduction to the art of ‘escanciar’, pouring cider from the barrels over a great height to ensure maximum aeration! Lots of delicious salt cod on the menu, although I wasn’t as keen on the huge rib of beef for the main course. I suspect I’m too much of a vegetable lover for mainstream Spanish cuisine these days…

Friday lunch was another opportunity to head off from the conference venue at Olarain University Halls of Residence and sniff out some pintxos (and a delicious burnt Basque cheesecake) in the surrounding area. The joy of this informal approach is that you go with whoever turns up at any given time, encouraging networking with people you might not have even chatted to before, very much part of the METM ethos.

Palace

The welcome reception on Friday evening was held at the Palacio Miramar, vacation home to the Spanish kings and queens, overlooking that perfect horseshoe bay. We were treated to an awesome display of local Basque music alongside local wine and canapés. The following night saw us out on the town again at the impressive Hotel Londres for the closing dinner and after-party, where some of us danced until the early hours – and probably picked up Covid in the process! Great music though.

Monte Igueldo with Nicki, Halyley, Sarah

The final official event was the traditional group walk on Sunday morning, starting out at the Monte Igueldo Funicular railway at the far end of Ondarreta beach, very close to my charming Airbnb. This is said to be one of the oldest funicular railways in Spain and certainly brought back memories of a similar one in Aberystwyth that I visited as a child, which dates back even earlier. I have vivid memories of visiting there on holiday in my teens only to find a vicar determinedly trying to walk up the track – it takes all sorts! We were a large group on this glorious Sunday morning so had to ascend the funicular in two batches, giving us time for a welcome coffee and chance to enjoy the spectacular views from the top before we set off on our walk on a short stretch of the Camino de Santiago, chatting all the way, of course. What a delightful way to round off an exceptional conference – we’d networked, eaten, drunk, talked, listened, walked and danced to our hearts’ content – I did 33,000 steps on the Sunday alone, which is quite some going, even for a city conference!

Foodie dinner

The Foodie Translators went on to our now customary foodie gathering at Tedone, a restaurant in the trendy Gros district, to wind down on Sunday evening – by far the best food of the past few days for me, along with the vegetarian lunch I shared with a lovely group of fellow veggie translators at Orburu, tucked away in the back streets of the Antiguo neighbourhood – quite a gem! And as ever, the best networking takes place when you’re relaxed and with like-minded colleagues.

So roll on next time – see you in Mantua?

Mantua

  • Group photograph courtesy of the lovely official METM photographer Jone Karres. I was particularly grateful to her for kindly bringing me a plate of chopped-up fresh fruit when I was struggling to find something I could eat at lunch one day. It turns out that wearing Invisalign braces is a bit of an endurance course at conferences….