, , , , , , , , , , , ,

  Brandenburger Tor

OK, I admit it: I may well be addicted to conferences. Having resisted their thrall for so long, I first took the plunge a few years ago and now try and attend at least one a year – more if I can! For a freelance translator, they are a great way of meeting up with like-minded colleagues and reconnecting with your profession. I love the fact that you come away feeling invigorated and enthused, keen to put new ideas into practice and perhaps with a few great tips up your sleeve, to say nothing of the numerous contacts you will undoubtedly have made.

My recent trip to the FIT Congress in Berlin was no exception. As the triennial flagship event of the International Federation of Translators, this was probably the largest translation conference I have attended, with some 1,600 delegates from all over the world. Berlin has been on my wish list for many a year, possibly since I first started learning German at the tender age of 12. My first German textbook was set in Berlin: Familie Müller’s descriptions of the Brandenburger Tor, the Siegessäule and Checkpoint Charlie have remained in my head ever since, so this was a fabulous opportunity to indulge my conference craving AND finally visit Germany’s capital city.

Mareike Steinig’s riverboat tour of the city on the previous Sunday afternoon afforded me a tantalising glimpse of the city’s delights, although, truth be told, more time was spent chatting and comparing notes with colleagues than taking in the sights and listening to Mareike’s splendid commentary. After our cruise we went on to dine in a traditional restaurant in the Nikolaiviertel, Berlin’s oldest district and then to stroll along the Spree for an unexpected taste of café culture, Berlin-style.

The conference itself was held in the Freie Universität Berlin, in the leafy suburbs to the south-west of the city, an easy U-Bahn ride from the centre of Berlin, where most delegates opted to stay. With so many attendees, there was an incredible choice of presentations: up to 12 parallel slots, thus posing a number of tricky decisions each session! Each hour-and-a half slot was often divided across two or three speakers, usually (although not always) speaking on related topics and it was certainly easier to stay put for the full time, rather than trying to move between sessions, especially as the distances between venues could be considerable. On the whole, this worked well and the organisation was generally excellent. I was surprised there wasn’t air conditioning, but then I suspect it was unusually hot, even for Berlin. Fortunately the SFT came up trumps with the brilliant idea of distributing fans from their stand – certainly saved my bacon in many a hot and crowded presentation…

SFT fan

Somewhat surprisingly, this was also the first translation conference I’ve attended at which simultaneous interpreting was provided for many of the sessions. Understanding all three of the conference languages, I didn’t have call to use the service, but I believe the interpreters did a great job – for a global event, it was certainly a necessity.

The conference’s official title was “Man vs. Machine? The Future of Translators, Interpreters and Terminologists”, a theme which obviously affects us all and there were a variety of different slants on this theme. Inevitably, I can only comment on the events I attended, but for me the whole congress was summed up by a phrase used by Chris Durban in her excellent talk on “The Visible Translator”. She suggested, on more than one occasion, that “translators need to come down from their caves up in the mountains and promote a positive image”. So true – I hope she won’t mind me borrowing her words. In attending the conference, we, of course, were doing just that – hearing others’ stories, networking frantically and comparing notes about how we could improve. I have certainly found that whereas rates are often a taboo topic in online forums, people attending conferences are much more likely to chat naturally and informally about rates, enabling you to assess where you stand in comparison and perhaps offering food for thought…

Other highlights for me included Attila Piroth’s presentation on “Man vs. Machine: who is who in the master-slave relationship?”, in which he pointed out that we can either be slaves to the dictates of translation agencies and CAT tools or exert our own authority and use CAT tools to improve our own processes for our own gain. As an aside close to my own heart, he noted the ability of Dragon speech recognition software to enhance the professional translator’s output and allow us to control our own workflows even better.

Maureen Ehrensberger-Dow and Gary Massey from the Institute of Translation and Interpreting at Zurich University of Applied Sciences also gave an interesting view on ergonomics in the translation industry in “Translators and machines: working together”. It was fascinating to note that the finer points of ergonomic design in the workplace often pale into insignificance next to the sheer volumes of stress created by uncooperative CAT tools! They are currently conducting a survey into ergonomics in the workplace and would like as many professional translators as possible to complete it. The link is below – it really doesn’t take long!

English survey: http://gibbon.zhaw.ch/limesurvey/index.php/478455/lang-en

I also enjoyed Terry Oliver’s talk on “Translators are human: this is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness”. It was a great shame that it was somewhat curtailed because of the previous session overrunning, but reading the full presentation in the conference proceedings has filled in the gaps. As well as explaining why we are unlikely to be overtaken by machines any time soon, Terry sought to explain that we can use our human strengths and weaknesses to our advantage and provide a better service to clients as a result. Good client relations are something many freelancers often overlook, but a vital tool in the armoury of an independent business.

I attended a couple of entertaining panel discussions with leading figures from the world of translation, again centring on various issues around the Man vs. Machine debate, and was amazed in the lively “Adapting to change – and shaping it” session that only one of the five panel members uses a CAT tool most of the time! The others ranged from never having tried it and not wanting to, having tried it and decided it wasn’t appropriate and using it for certain clients’ needs, but otherwise preferring pencil and paper! As a fervent convert since I first dabbled nearly 10 years ago, I was flabbergasted – but each to their own. I can’t help thinking that, entertaining though it was, it was hardly a fair debate….

Tempted as I was by the Translation Slam on Tuesday afternoon, I was swayed by the Human Rights session in one of the smaller conference venues, not least because the first speaker was talking about the problems in translating and interpreting for the Japanese earthquake in 2011. As a translator specialising in the nuclear industry, and given the obvious knock-on effects with the Fukushima Power Plant, I thought it might be rather interesting. Unfortunately, many other people had the same idea and we ended up jammed like sardines in a very small, airless and extremely hot room – which was a pity. However, Patrick Cadwell’s talk was very enlightening, although it centred perhaps more on human-scale interpreting requirements than technical translation issues. One problem he highlighted was the fact that the government had radio messages translated into different languages, but that many of the foreign nationals targeted quite simply didn’t listen to radio! Lori Thicke’s subsequent presentation on the work of “Translators without Borders” was equally fascinating and highlights just how valuable pro bono work can be – especially in the case of minority languages.

Perhaps my favourite session of the conference was the final spot on the last day, when many delegates had already started leaving. Entitled “Breathe and change your life – Stress Management for Linguists” by Gabi Bocanete, a professional interpreter and trained yoga teacher, this turned out to be a perfect closing presentation. Instead of leaving us deflated and tired at the end of a marathon 3-day event, I for one came out invigorated, refreshed and amused! Bravo, Gabi! Breathing, posture and soothing massage techniques were all covered in an extremely entertaining session, including one revealing moment showing all too clearly how our internal organs are compressed as we slump over our computer screens day in, day out…

Gabi's gutsy yoga topA few tiny niggles marring an otherwise excellent event: the catering left a lot to be desired, with huge queues forming at lunchtime and a less-than-extensive range of food on offer if you managed to get to the front of the queue before they ran out. Soup or curry on a boiling hot day in August?! Coffee and tea breaks fared better as they had been sponsored by different local organisations, but the snacks on offer varied from delicious-looking open sandwiches on the first morning to drinks and the odd basket of fruit if you were lucky on another day… I feel this could have been better managed for such an auspicious occasion.

I also wonder whether it was necessary to print out the proceedings – two huge volumes for each delegate to take away at the end of the conference. I would certainly have been happier with a code to download them afterwards, but the fact that they were there and printed rather outweighed the environmental argument of leaving them, cabin baggage restrictions notwithstanding! Finally, I found it surprising to see parents with very young babies at the conference: as a mum myself, albeit with grown-up children, I have absolutely no issue with children, but I really do question whether a professional conference is the place for them. Especially when they began to cry during sessions and were not removed immediately, thus disturbing not only the speaker(s), but also the rest of the audience…. It all comes down to that professional image in the end, you see.

So, all in all, was it worth it? Absolutely! Whilst the sheer size of the event meant that I didn’t network with as many new people as I usually do at such events, I did meet lots of old friends and colleagues, and plenty of new contacts, too, often virtual acquaintances from Twitter. I would have loved to have made more use of the various TweetUp events organised around the conference, but found I kept getting embroiled in fascinating conversations and missed the designated rendezvous! Since returning from Berlin, I have already received two jobs via new clients met at the conference. What other proof do you need of how worthwhile it can be to get out of your cave and down from the mountains? See you at the ITI Conference in Newcastle next year?!