Changing for the better

Changing for the better

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This year’s MET conference, held in Mantua, Italy, had pretty much everything you could ask for: a beautiful venue, interesting people to talk to and, yes, content that seemed a great deal better than last year’s. I’m sure this last point will please some who were unhappy at my criticisms of last year’s conference in San Sebastian. But Mantua was a conference that sent me away buzzing with ideas – just the way it should be.

Mind you, some of those ideas were not quite the ones I was expecting. I attended a workshop on the subject of Artificial Intelligence run by Elina Nocera, Theresa Truax-Gischler and Allison Wright (pictured), and a keynote talk the following day on the same issue, by Luisa Bentivogli, anticipating either being terrified by how good AI is or at least picking up some ways to use it in my work. I came away greatly reassured that it is not going to replace translators or writers in the near future. In fact, from the exercises we did in the workshop, it was clear that ChatGPT, for one, is so prone to making things up that it really can’t be relied on for anything. Try it yourself with something you know about if you don’t believe me.

This confirmed the results of my own attempts to use it to research usage, in which another bot, Google Bard, candidly admitted to me that it had made up a whole series of examples. However, as Luisa pointed out, it is certainly not always going to be that way and it is as well to keep an eye on developments in AI to see when it could actually become either some use, or a real threat. For the time being I can safely concentrate on more interesting or more pressing concerns.

My view is that the true menace of AI at the moment actually bears little relation to how effective or useful it actually is, and is much more closely related to client perception. Anyone who’s lost a client in recent months – and there are plenty of us – knows how frustrating it is when we see the machines they are presumably now using are giving them a much worse service. Here lay the interest in Sara Bawa Mason’s talk on translation associations and their role in communicating the value of human translation services. Her work with the UK Association of Translation Companies has led her to produce all kinds of materials translation companies can use to encourage clients of the advantages of using their services. It seems to me that this could well be adapted by translators’ organisations too and used to great advantage.

I very much enjoyed taking part in the Spanish-English translation snippets session that I’ve helped to run for the last two MET conferences and so never been an ordinary participant. It was interesting to wonder whether a machine could have come up with some of the creative solutions my group and others managed to the short, tricky little translation problems put to us by Kit Cree and Helen Oclee-Brown. And then there were those sessions that had little direct relevance to me, but were fascinating and well-presented: Ruth Simpson on cosmetics translation, Helen Oclee-Brown on the use of translation theory in teachng, and the other keynote talk – Federico Federici on translating in acute crises, with a particular focus on the treatment of the refugees crossing the Mediterranean every day in precarious little boats to arrive in Italy. There they have a constitutional right to be dealt with in their own language. But what if there’s no interpreter…?

MET has now developed to the point where it’s going to need to think about different languages too. It’s an organisation that was founded 20 years ago particularly for translators and editors working from Mediterranean languages into English. But over the years it has changed, and many members now work from English into other languages. In the general assembly, the lack of conference content for these out-of-English translators was raised by Ana Carolina Ribeiro (who, for disclosure, happens to be my partner). She is quite right, very little thought has been given to them until now. However, there was considerable resistance to the idea from established members, and maybe MET’s charter should be amended as, if strictly interpreted, it probably wouldn’t allow the considerable number of into-English members from countries like Holland, Finland and Germany, let alone translators into other languages. Until that can happen, though, there is plenty that can be done: two-way snippet sessions, for example, and advice to conference speakers so that they use at least some examples going into other languages. Maybe some content can be proposed that would appeal more to out-of-English translators too, such as a discussion on the particular problems English poses as a source language.

I hope the MET Council will look sympathetically on these suggestions. But they can be congratulated on a real return to form for the conference. Roll on Carcassonne in 2024!


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